Multiple spoilers for Altered Carbon are contained within this article.
For anyone who has read a lot of cyberpunk novels, it is one of those genres that is extremely difficult to translate to film. Very often a cyberpunk story is so futuristic that it becomes borderline inaccessible to a more casual audience and as a result filmmakers shirk a bit at truly embracing what the genre has to offer. Even the “classics” like Blade Runner and its even more insolvent distant sequel, Blade Runner 2049, come at the genre with a sense of apprehension in regards to truly digging in deep to what the genre is capable of. For all the flak it received (some of it rightly so), the mid-90’s Keanu Reeves film Johnny Mnemonic (based on the novel by cyberpunk author William Gibson – his Sprawl Trilogy pretty much defined the genre) actually had a better grasp on exploring the possibilities contained with cyberpunk. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (released that same year) also found a way to investigate cyberpunk themes without losing the grit and grime that comes with it. After all, cyberpunk is supposed to be PUNK, not an antiseptic, polished work that could sit in a museum.
Which leads us to Netflix’s Altered Carbon, created by Laeta Kalogridis and based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan.
Synopsis: “ALTERED CARBON is set in a future where consciousness is digitized and stored in cortical stacks implanted in the spine, allowing humans to survive physical death by having their memories and consciousness “re-sleeved” into new bodies. The story follows specially trained “Envoy” soldier Takeshi Kovacs, who is downloaded from an off-world prison and into the body of a disgraced cop at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, a highly influential aristocrat. Bancroft was killed, and the last automatic backup of his stack was made hours before his death, leaving him with no memory of who killed him and why. While police ruled it a suicide, Bancroft is convinced he was murdered and wants Kovacs to find out the truth.”
Embracing the outlandish. Even in the synopsis, the show is diving into some heavy cyberpunk waters. Cortical stacks? Re-sleeved into new bodies? Downloading a soldier’s consciousness from an off-world prison? On the premise alone, this show is already delivering a lot of fun stuff. It’s a layered, complex world that requires a lot of exposition to get off the ground. The first couple episodes aren’t the easiest to get into as you’re thrust into an entirely new world and racing to catch up – not only to the technological advancements but also the societal/cultural changes. Two things that can easily frustrate modern audiences who are used to being spoon-fed every thing. That frustration should be there and like any good show, it makes you actually put a bit of effort to become invested in the story. Becoming acclimated to the technological possibilities of Altered Carbon’s world is important as a lot of the show’s tonal and emotional beats revolve around increasingly outlandish tech being accepted as the norm. The beauty of a show like Altered Carbon (and the cyberpunk genre as a whole) is that once you’re fully immersed in such a deep ocean of limitless possibilities – you can do some really inventive and interesting stuff that becomes the tapestry for amazing stories to unfold.
Stacks and sleeves. The idea of “sleeves” is explored in many different ways. Being able to transfer your consciousness into a new body seems like a godsend. We’re talking potential immortality. The end of death itself. Altered Carbon shows how this apparent blessing is actually a curse. With every new technology, those who have money and power are the ones who truly benefit. In AC, only the super rich (known as ‘meths’ – short for Methuselah) can afford to clone themselves and upgrade their bodies as needed. As they never die, their wealth never transfers or gets dispersed so they only grow richer, more powerful and more isolated from the rest of humanity. As a result there is an unprecedented gulf between the rich and the poor, with the rich holding near god-like power and influence over the planets (yes, planets plural as Earth has colonized all over the universe – in fact the technology that eventually lead to the Stacks came from aliens) and very little regard for those beneath them.
Amongst the poor, the Stack technology leads them into institutionalized slavery. People go into debt to afford a new sleeve. With the importance of the human body being downgraded to that equal to your iPhone case, a whole marketplace of the flesh arises. Fights to the death are regulated as sport, prostitution goes from conventional sex work to the darkest depths of human depravity (murder, torture, sex – all in one discounted package to the meths who can afford it!) and criminals become even more adept at preying on the weak. Just like in The Purge franchise, what initially seems like a universally beneficial idea is quickly twisted into something terrible that solely benefits the old rich. What should be a utopia, is actually a futuristic dystopia that borders on a waking hell-scape and everyone not in power is a victim/peasant/slave. It is through this outlandish idea of sleeves and stacks that Altered Carbon is able to explore, in a multi-faceted way, the problems of consolidated wealth. It also sets up the main story very nicely.
Technology and rebellion. Another key element of Altered Carbon is how with the misuse of technological advancements, there will inevitably be those rebel. These are the Envoys; soldiers trained by Quell (a mysterious rebel leader) specifically for one purpose – to undo the damage created by the Stack technology and end the idea of immortality amongst humans – as it has all but ruined humanity. The series protagonist – Kovacs – is the last remaining Envoy in existence (though we do see more in flashbacks). Envoys are basically like next-level sleeve jumpers. Normally jumping from sleeve-to-sleeve can make a person go crazy over time, but Envoys are trained to handle it with very little fallout. What’s interesting about Altered Carbon’s approach to the Envoys and their mission is that they failed. Much like Mal Reynolds in Firefly, Kovacs lost his war and now has to reconcile that with living amongst the system he fought against. So when Bancroft basically buys his stack and puts him in a new body, holding his freedom just out of reach unless he does what he’s told, you can begin to understand Kovacs seething resentment for the whole ordeal.
As Kovacs navigates this new world he finds himself in, he uses the lessons learned during Enovy training to establish his own small cadre of misfits to help take on the Meths and their system of abusive dominance. The technology that holds the people down, eventually becomes the weaponry of the rebellion (another common theme in cyberpunk stories). They utilize sleeve technology and guerrilla tactics to accomplish their means. For example, at one point Kovac “double-sleeves” himself, something high illegal, but very common amongst the Meths – as laws don’t really apply to them the same way, in order to deceive the enemy.
Then there’s Lizzie Elliot. If there was ever a character that personified the damage done by the inhuman actions of the aristocracy – it is Lizzie Elliot. She was not only a victim of this technology but also the culture/society created around the technology. Lizzie was a sex worker who was abused regularly by Meths. She was beaten, left for dead and tortured into insanity – all because a Meth wanted to maintain their status. Over the course of the series we see her become rehabilitated in a VR world with the help of an artificial intelligence named Poe who runs a hotel. Oh, by the way, AI is super common in this world – another super fun cyberpunk staple. Anyway, Lizzie rehabilitates in this VR environment (connected to the web) and becomes so attuned to that world she develops abilities beyond the real world. Similar to Kovacs double-sleeving himself, Lizzie uses the very technology that left her for dead to fight back against her abusers. She uploads herself into a synthetic (kind of like the ones in Blade Runner, but cooler) body and proceeds to massacre a lot of Meths patronizing a high-end brothel that offers “real death snuff sex” (so instead of just killing a sleeve that is disposable anyway, high-paying customers can kill a sex worker who will never come back or just crush their stack with no real repercussions).
What’s it really all about? The aforementioned elements are only a fraction of what Altered Carbon provided over its 10-episode season, but it’s easy to see how a show actually embracing the more outlandish elements of the cyberpunk genre can lead to inventive, original and subversive storytelling that would otherwise be impossible in almost any other genre. It is refreshing to see a show actually lean-in to what this amazing genre is capable of as it is exceedingly rare in today’s climate. Even the critically acclaimed Blade Runner 2049 only dipped its pinky toe into what cyberpunk truly can do, leaning more on nostalgia and extending a story written as a reflection of the end of the 70s.
Where Altered Carbon differs is how it takes the cyberpunk genre and uses it to tell a hard-boiled, detective noir story – two genres that work very well together. Admist the bells and whistles of a dynamic cyberpunk backdrop, Altered Carbon is about solving a mystery and trying to find some kind of code or honor while living in an immensely corrupt world. Kovacs and the people he surrounds himself with know they can’t solve the world’s problems or undo hundreds of years of technological advancements (and the societal implications of those advancements), but they can try to make right the wrongs of their more immediate world – ultimately making for a much more personal and hard-hitting story.
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