Let’s Talk About Altered Carbon

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A man who never loves gives no hostages to fortune. — Takeshi Kovacs

The Rundown

After crushing through all 30 hours of Netflix’s new original sci-fi series Altered Carbon in 3 days I immediately picked up the phone and told all of my friends to check it out. It’s been a few days now and I’ve returned to the functioning adult world. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, my conclusion remains largely the same: Netflix hit a home run.

I have to say, it was quite a relief after suffering through The Cloverfield Paradox right after the Super Bowl. My faith in Netflix’s ability to produce quality content in my beloved sci-fi genre had been badly shaken by… whatever that was. Halfway through the pilot of Altered Carbon however, I felt comfortable writing off The Cloverfield Paradox as an unfortunate mis-step and nothing more.

**The following contains SPOILERS for the entirety of Altered Carbon season 1**

For those of you who haven’t started Altered Carbon yet, the cyberpunk/noir sci-fi story takes place 250 years in the future. Humans have invented implanted devices called stacks that download the human consciousness to what is essentially a glowing flash drive embedded in the base of your neck. When the body dies, the stack is removed and re-sleeved into another.

(We’ll come back to the cultural ramifications of all that later on.)

Former terrorist operative Takeshi Kovacs’ (Joel Kinnaman) stack has been pulled out of prison/cold storage and re-sleeved. Summoned by wealthy and influential businessman Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), Kovacs is informed that Mr. Bancroft has facilitated his release for a very specific purpose: to investigate Bancroft’s own murder. In return, Kovacs will receive a full pardon and enough money to create a new life.

Cast, Crew, and Production

Obviously it’s not that simple, but the way writer Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys) works her way through each new revelation somehow makes the multi-faceted plot seem tight and focused. Opting to trim down from the typical 13-episode season Netflix seems to be so fond of really did the show a lot of favors in my mind. There was almost no fat on this show. If anything, I really feel like the final three episodes could have been stretched to four.

Netflix never talks money, but it looked like they dumped a lot of it into this show. It really showed in the scope of the visual effects and some of the more complex action scenes. Altered Carbon definitely saved some money by casting actors relatively new to leading roles. Joel Kinnamen technically led the Robocop reboot, but that all but went straight to DVD.

Kinnamen definitely had a lot of work to do in order to win me over but he did. To some I imagine he came across somewhat flat or aloof in the role of Kovacs, but I personally think it was quite fitting for a character with his history. If nothing else certainly brought the physicality needed for the role of elite super soldier/former terrorist who’s main investigatory tool is whipping ass.

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Across from Kinnamen were three powerful, diverse, and dynamic women Martha Higareda (Ortega), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Falconer), and Dichen Lachman (Rei). All were spectacular, frequently stealing the show from Kinnamen and bringing their own individual brands of intensity that really shined when they went head to head. The supporting cast was also solid all around, fleshing out incredibly well developed minor characters. If Reddit is any measure, Chris Conner’s AI hotelier Poe was the runaway fan favorite and I’d be a sham of a TV/movie fan if I didn’t call out the phenomenal performance by Matt Biedel as Abuela and Dimi the Twin – both in a gangster sleeve.

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The World

Overall, Altered Carbon delivered the main pillars of science fiction. It was without a doubt visually stunning. If there was one complaint to be had, it might be that its homage to Blade Runner vibe was just a little too on the nose. But, I guess there’s only so much variety to be had in a cyberpunk noir sci-fi mystery genre. Violence and sexuality were in abundance, sometimes together and to the point of being gratuitous. Knocking on HBO’s door in those departments.

I appreciate that Kalogridis actually took the time to build out the world throughout the season. At any given moment it was apparent that a lot of thought had gone into the development of the universe and what this future looks like in it. In my experience good science fiction is made or broken by how well it toes the line between providing too little background information to become invested in and so much detail that the universe inevitably begins to have holes poked in it. Where the focus of the worldbuilding rests is key. Altered Carbon did that about as successfully as can be done, especially when it comes to the stacks.

They spent less time talked about how the stacks were created or how they work and instead focused on a what a world with stacks looks like. Swinging back around the gratuitous violence and sex – I actually think that it served a purpose in this show. Think about it. In a world where your body is merely a temporary vessel, the physical effects of violence and promiscuity tend to fade. The rules are different when you can re-sleeve when your current body is spent or broken.

The caveat to that however, is explored as well. Being able to re-sleeve on demand is a luxury only the elites like Bancroft can afford. The show does a good job showing (if you’re paying attention) what glimpses of life for the average joe looks like. For example, the brief scene at the beginning of the pilot in which a young girl “killed” in after being hit by a drunk driver is re-sleeved in the first available sleeve: a 50-something woman. Her horrified parents are left with nothing left to do but comfort their scared daughter after being told “if they don’t like the sleeve they can pay for an upgrade.”

Little things like this and a side-plot that takes a look at some of the possible psychological repercussions betray some of the darker possibilities of this world and the fact that this is a novel adaptation rather than a story made-for-television. I dig it. So on that note…

Let’s talk about stacks baby…

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The question that begs to be asked is this: if you could install your own stack, would you?

I actually had the opportunity to pose this question to some of my family at dinner one night. After a brief explanation what stacks do, I got some not so surprising answers.

Everyone except me said no. And while I silently called bullshit I listened to their explanations and realized they were just articulating the same concerns the show had. While I personally would sign up for a stack in a heartbeat, I think humanity would suffer as a whole. It would inevitably exasperate socio-economic inequality. I.e. the rich party hard in super bodies and the poor wallow in aging bodies forced to work them to the limit and hoping the next one ends up being a bit younger. Maybe not and ideal future.

What’s next?

Netflix hasn’t officially announced whether or not they’re in on a second season yet. Initial ratings seemed promising but there’s been some rumblings around the internet that viewership fades as the audience gets further into the season. I write that off as every day viewers losing focus as the show embraces its science-fiction background and attempts to condense novel-sized plots into the final act of the season. My instinct tells me we’ll get a second season. Kalogridis has said they’ve planned for five.

I’m not sure where they’ll take the show if they get another season, but I’m interested in finding out.

What did you think? Like it or not, let me know why below in the comments.

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