The question of immortality and humanity is one that continues to be discussed today, and there is usually a no better place to discuss than in the confines of a story. Altered Carbon, based on the 2002 novel of the same name by author Richard K. Morgan, presents these questions while also telling an exciting and compelling story. This Netflix adaptation is powerful and worth the watch, even though there are some mild missteps along the way. Let's dive into Altered Carbon and figure out why this series is another excellent offering from Netflix that simultaneously entertains and provokes thought.
Over 360 years in the future, humanity has found a way to store memories and consciousness onto devices called cortical stacks. These stacks are then implanted in a person’s spinal column in the back of the neck and continue to record and store anything the person experiences. Because of this, people can be resurrected from death if their stack remains intact. However, if the stack is destroyed and has not been backed up to another storage device, this means true death for the person. Because of this, human bodies are now referred to as "sleeves" and are not only born but are also synthetically created. The technology to utilize this "immortality" is costly, and therefore only the most obscenely rich, known as Meths in reference to the Biblical patriarch Methuselah, can afford to live forever with a continual stream of clone bodies and backups of their stacks.
Enter Takeshi Kovacs. He is the sole survivor of a 250-year-old failed rebellion that attempted to stop the implementation of the stack technology and maintain the natural law of humanity. His stack is pulled out of prison and placed in a new sleeve by a 300-year-old man named Laurens Bancroft, a Meth. He is then offered a chance at a new life by Bancroft if Kovacs can solve a murder – the murder of Bancroft himself. This lead Kovacs down a dark road of conspiracy and intrigue, and his past, even 250 years distant, continues to haunt him.
Actors/Actresses and their Performances
There are two strong performances in this series. The first is by Joel Kinnaman, who plays Takeshi Kovacs. The first time most people saw Joel was in the reboot of Robocop as the titular character, but his performance in that movie was not as good as it could have been. In Altered Carbon, however, Joel has been given a role that is fitting of his demeanor and personality. This future world where people's humanity is questionable and everything has a cyberpunk and dreary tone to it, his dry and cold attitude works very well for a character that is not only out of his time but who has also lost hope. He was a very good choice for the character's new sleeve, and he and the actor who portrays Kovacs in flashbacks, Bryon Mann, maintain the same character traits and keep the character consistent as the story unravels, and flashbacks become more essential to the plot.
The other excellent performance is Martha Higareda as Kristin Ortega. Ortega comes from an extremely religious family who has a long line of police officers in their family, and she is no exception. Her stance as a law enforcement officer plays very well off Kovacs' mercenary attitude, and the two of them have some great scenes of dialogue together. Where her character stands out is in her attitude towards the meths and the state of the city in which she works. It is through her that we get to see the terrible situation that most people live in and how bad many things are. Through her experience with her family, we also get to see how some people have rejected the idea of leaving one’s body for religious reasons. Her character is somewhat cynical and doesn’t like meths, but we see through her experiences that she is still trying to uphold the law even in a place where money can lift you above the law. All the emotions that come with this are brought across extremely well by Martha. While it is mostly through Kovacs that we watch the plot unfold, it is mainly through Martha's performance as Ortega that we learn about the universe in which the story takes place and the lives of the ordinary people that inhabit it.
The vibe of the whole show is very reminiscent of the cyberpunk style. Lighting and scenery are simultaneously very bright and colorful, but the actual color palette is somewhat limited. This helps to add to the cyberpunk, synth-wave atmosphere and keep things feeling familiar yet futuristic. The CGI is tasteful and very well done. Not too little, not too much. There are a few times where the CGI is on the verge of looking bad, but it doesn't last very long, and very few people will notice it.
The dialogue is not bad, but it is not one of the series strengths. The dialogue serves its purpose of keeping the plot moving and deepening it when necessary. There are a few moments where the dialogue seems unnecessary, or it continues for a little too long and becomes a bit stale. However, what saves it from being a detriment is the dialogue when one particular character is involved who is the best character in the series where dialogue is concerned.
Lastly, let’s briefly discuss the themes present in the series. While many people want to home in on the idea that being able to choose your body and be whoever you feel you are is a discussion of societal issues such as transgenderism. While that is a viable interpretation, many people are missing what is undoubtedly the more prominent theme with regard to that same idea. With everyone being able to pick and choose their body and even survive death, the question of what is human becomes the ever-present conundrum. People are willing to do things that would be completely horrific or disgusting in our day and age, but in this future, since death is no longer an issue for most people, the restraints have been completely lifted, and anything goes. The question of whether or not we are connected to and defined by our bodies becomes important. The series presents a few people who are treated as non-human and disposable merely because they are going to be put in new sleeves if anything bad happens to them. The nudity in the series helps further the theme of a society that has degraded the human body. The rich behave like animals at times, which is a further discussion on how the apparent "liberation" from death has manifested from their humanity. These themes are where the series shines the strongest.
Even with some of the series' strengths, there are a few problems that result in a few lost points. The actors, while mostly strong, are a little robotic at times. This can lead to people not being interested or even being bored by their performances. The murder plot gets sidelined very quickly in the first few episodes, which can result in the audience almost forgetting the genesis of the story for the whole series. The final issue is that there is an absurd amount of nudity in the series. Some of it does serve to further the theme of the degradation of the human body, but there is a large amount of it that seems to be there for the sake of fanservice, keeping men interested, and being edgy for the sake of being edgy. The nudity with regards to the main characters is the big culprit in this, and I wish those characters were treated with a bit more respect.
The first season of Altered Carbon is a great watch and is extremely entertaining. The action, cinematography, and compelling themes ensure that this series is entertaining and gets its audience to think about some very compelling and deep ideas. While the problems with the acting, the murder plot, and the nudity do bring the show down a bit, it is still a very strong series and is deserving of a viewing from every Netflix subscriber.
Final Rating: 7/10
3: Painfully Below Average
4: Below Average
6: Above Average
Ryan O’Connor is a fifth-year senior studying physics at CWU. He is an avid gamer and nerd and loves to share and hear opinions about anything related to these things. He is also the DJ on Electropolis known as LYNX.