Let’s not kid ourselves- it’s hard not to think of the Blade Runner movies and their stunning urban fantasy visuals when looking at the aesthetic direction of Altered Carbon. It’s a new series from Netflix based on the first of author Richard Morgan’s novels starring his Takeshi Kovacs character, who looks somewhat like Ryan Gosling’s “K” character in 2049 from a distance with his dark trench coat.
But this show has a wide variety of ideas it wants to explore that certainly separate it from feeling like a complete copy of the famous Ridley Scott film. Themes of class warfare, the nature of humanity and how people perceive death, the afterlife and reality itself are all at play here.
It’s a remarkably detailed world to be sure, and there is some nice worldbuilding on display. But combined with the complexity of the story, the various twists and amount of information to digest, sometimes it feels a bit overwhelming, especially since Carbon runs for only ten episodes.
This is a very overstuffed series, so thank God most of the performances were strong. Otherwise, this would have been a much tougher show to binge through. Luckily, as serious-minded as it is, there are bits of humor peppered through it, mostly through Joel Kinnaman snarking like Duke Nukem as he blows away bad guys while carrying around a “Hello Unicorn” backpack for his ammo.
Mr. Kovacs is a super-soldier known as an “Envoy”. He’s been reawakened 250 years after his death, in a future where humans have achieved the ability to “re-sleeve”- the term for transferring themselves into fresh bodies after they die, using devices implanted in their spines called “stacks” which hold people’s consciousness.
If your stack somehow gets destroyed, preferably through a blast to your neck in the eyes of someone who wishes to do you harm, it’s “real death”- game over, completely. What makes the Envoys unique is their power to cast their consciousness onto distant sleeve bodies, making them dangerous in the eyes of the general public.
Kovacs has been saddled with the body of a deceased cop named Elias Ryker, played by Joel Kinnaman in the present canon. There are also frequent flashbacks to Kovacs’ past life as part of a band of freedom fighter Envoys, where his old “sleeve” is portrayed by Will Yun Lee. Led by their leader Quellcrest Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry) the Envoys launched a rebellion against the U.N. Protectorate governing the Earth’s colonies, only to have their efforts sabotaged.
For now, Kovacs is focused on his new client, a powerful and morally questionable rich guy named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, who isn’t quite chewing the scenery but is clearly relishing the juicy dialogue he gets to deliver). Bancroft, a “Meth” (short for the biblical figure Methuselah) who’s wealthy enough to create multiple copy sleeves for himself and essentially be immortal, has resurrected Kovacs to solve his murder.
As Kovacs goes further down the rabbit hole, many things in Bay City turn out to be not what they initially seem. Despite his cynical attitude, he winds up making a fair amount of friends, albeit reluctantly- including a hologrammatic Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Connor) who runs an artificial intelligence hotel, the former Protectorate soldier Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh) who’s looking to save his daughter, and a straight-laced detective named Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) who has her own history involving Kovacs’ current sleeve.
In the wake of the whitewashing controversy that plagued Paramount’s recent Ghost In The Shell adaption, it’s understandable how the premise of Altered Carbon, which calls for a Caucasian man to assume the role of an Asian man, could leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. To be fair, showrunner Laeta Kalogridis does seem to be aware of the potential red flags at play.
She does make an effort to showcase a diverse cast playing characters with agency, including expanding the roles of some minor players from the original book.
There’s a good amount of screentime spent with Lee as Kovacs alongside his sister, Reileen Kawahara (Dichem Lachman) and Goldsberry’s Falconer- who gave me strong vibes of Sonic SatAM’s own rebellion leader Princess Sally Acorn. If you somehow turned her into a human.
The scenes with Kinnaman and Higareda are fine enough, but Goldsberry and Lee have remarkably great chemistry together. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more of the legendary commander in a second season.
Some of the sexual aspects and the violence level might be off-putting for some people. Kovacs and company spend a fair amount of time in places like Bay City’s seedy brothels and a flying pleasure airship called Head In The Clouds, and prostitute sleeves are seen being violently assaulted at points.
In one scene, our hero has to fend off being seduced by Miriam Bancroft (Kristin Lehman), Laurens’ wife who possibly might have her own agenda. The executions of sleeves are rendered with slow-motion blood flying across the screen, and the audience will certainly wince during a scene where Kinnaman’s Kovacs is tortured in a virtual reality simulator.
Still, there’s plenty of beauty to be found in Bay City, not just in term of the visuals but also in how effective a lot of the cinematography is. The fight choreography feels intense and believable, and Jeff Russo’s score is rather poignant at points.
I should also especially give credit to Martha Higadera and Chris Connor’s respective performances. Kinnaman wasn’t a bad leading man at all, but often times I was waiting for the story to return to the supporting characters I often enjoyed more. Poe is dryly funny and a very sympathetic (and effective, though Kovacs would never admit it) sidekick, and he has a charming bond with Vernon’s daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law), who you should keep your eye on as the show reaches its climax.
Many things are happening in Altered Carbon, and it often feels like there’s too much going on. You may find yourself hitting the rewind button a number of times to pick up details you may have overlooked as the mystery deepens, but it is fun to keep up with. There’s a weird contrast with how gritty and noir-ish the basic narrative is and how progressively the adaption was handled.
Now I’m not trying to argue that this show is a masterpiece. Carbon gets bogged down by too much exposition at points, and it’s often too pessimistic for its own good (some of Kovacs’s voiceovers make him come off like an angsty high school kid). And not all of its themes get equal exploration time since it’s trying to juggle so many different concepts. The first five episodes can feel achingly slow, particularly when some of the side characters wind up being eventual red herrings.
Nevertheless, I generally enjoyed it, and I’ll recommend it just based on the level of ambition and effort that was clearly poured into this series. The second half of the season is much more emotional, and I do think it’s worth sticking with through some of the slow-burn parts.