“The first thing you’ll learn is that nothing is what it seems…” This is the opening line of the first episode of Altered Carbon and it couldn’t be more apt. Its true that given the popularity of sci-fi dystopian series and the trend for body-swapping stories, you might think you know everything you need to about the new Netflix Original from the trailers (opens in new tab). I thought I did. That didn’t stop me from desperately wanting to watch it though, and chances are you feel the same if you like shows like Westworld, Black Mirror, and The Expanse. Altered Carbon is very much of its time in the sense that it’s riding the wave of high quality futurism, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve seen this all before. The series might feel like it has inspirations from all over the sci-fi movie and TV landscape, but it definitely brings something new to the genre as well.
Based on the cyberpunk sci-fi novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, Laeta Kalogridis - known for writing Shutter Island (opens in new tab) and Terminator Genisys (opens in new tab) - originally optioned the novel many years ago to turn it into a feature film, but struggled to get a studio onboard due to the complex nature and R-rated material of the book. Luckily, Netflix and Skydance Television saw its potential and ordered a 10 episode series in 2016, which will hit Netflix worldwide on February 2. “I’m thrilled to get the chance to share the cyberpunk world of Altered Carbon with the Netflix audience," Kalogridis told me when Netflix released the first behind-the-scene featurette. "It’s been a labor of love and lunacy, much like the journey of Takeshi Kovacs himself, and I’m beyond excited for all of you to see what we’ve created."
Set more than 300 years into the future, the invention of cortical stacks has made ‘real death’ an option rather than a certainty. Human consciousness is now downloaded into a stack in the top of the spine of every Protectorate citizen, which means it can be placed into another body - or sleeve as they’re now called - as and when needed. If you die accidentally, you can live again in a new body. If your body gets too old, just clone a younger version of yourself. If you haven't fulfilled your lifelong dream of travelling the universe, how about another three live times? Of course, as so often is the case, only the very rich can afford to clone themselves multiple times, which means most people still live with the sleeve they’re born with and if they die accidentally or are murdered… well, they have to take whatever sleeve is on-hand from the government which are less than desirable. Oh, and you better look after your stack because if something happens to that, there’s no coming back.
The story centres on the character of Takeshi Kovacs. A “lone surviving soldier of a group of elite interstellar warriors” who ‘died’ in an uprising to overthrow the Protectorate more than 250 years ago. He’s resleeved (and effectively bought) by one of the richest men on Earth, Laurens Bancroft, to find his would-be murderer and decides to go along with it, so that one day he might eventually fulfil his original mission… And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot of the series. If you want a more detailed breakdown of the story of Altered Carbon, you’ll have to wait for our full season review, which will be published on February 2, once the series is on Netflix, to avoid spoilers. For now though, there’s still plenty we can talk about with giving too much away.
The cast is a good mixture of known and unknown talent, but everyone involved is up to scratch and there’s not a dud performance to be found throughout. Suicide Squad’s Joel Kinnaman is credited as playing ‘Takeshi Kovacs’s sleeve’ - make of that what you will - and proves he can do a lot more than simply point a gun and throw down with the bad guys. James Purefoy brings Bancroft to life and although the role isn’t exactly a challenge for the English actor, he’s still a joy to watch. Mexican-born Martha Higareda plays my favourite character, cop Kristin Ortega, who is as brash and unapologetic as she is moral, and Kristin Lehman plays Bancroft’s beautiful wife, Miriam. There’s plenty of stellar performances to pick from the supporting cast too, including Renée Elise Goldsberry, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Chris Conner, Will Yun Lee, and more… in fact, there’s too many to mention! Due to the very nature of the material, this was never going to be the easiest acting job in the world and Kalogridis has obviously chosen her cast very well.
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The world-building and aesthetic of the show is pitch perfect futuristic sci-fi. In fact, it looks and feels so spot on Blade Runner that if someone told me it was based in the same universe, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s managed to do what so many movies and TV shows have tried and failed to in the past, and captures the spirit of Ridley Scott’s fascinating world rather than just ripping it off. Add a splash of The Expanse and you will have a good idea of what this series is, but the way it looks - as beautiful as it is - isn’t what it’s about. All style, no substance, Altered Carbon is not... and Kalogridis hasn’t shied away from the moral core of the story. Unsurprisingly, a series about humans living forever brings up more than a few moral questions and if that’s one of your favourite things about Westworld, you’re going to love this. The message isn’t the same old, ‘By the way, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it would actually really suck to live forever’ - it’s more like, ‘What would happen if the bad people in the world never died?’ Would humanity stop evolving? Stop moving forward? Because the rich and powerful would want to keep the status quo in place and even death wouldn’t put an end to their tyranny? Altered Carbon will make you realise that death is a safeguard against so much more than mere boredom.
The series is pretty jargon heavy, but you’d be amazed how quickly you pick it up. Before you know it you’ll be talking about how you need to look after your sleeve and thinking about casting down to the shop for a pint of milk, and something the first episode does incredibly well is set the scene and give you all the information you need to understand the world you’re in. One controversial issue which might raise its head once Altered Carbon lands on Netflix next month is white washing, but unfortunately I can’t go into why without spoiling the series. I will say that while the main character is another white man, the surrounding cast is fairly diverse and the series as a whole does a good job of presenting a very multicultural and ethnically mixed world.
For me, Altered Carbon is all the best bits of the sci-fi series and movies I love… while still something very new. Any science fiction fan won’t fail to notice the parallels this Netflix Original has with movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report, and shows like Black Mirror and Dollhouse (there are actually two Dollhouse alumni among the cast too), but I challenge you to not get sucked into it body and soul. The world-building is so deep that you can’t help but feel a part of it, and the story balances the action we’ve come to expect from blockbusters, with something much more important than a well-choreographed fight scene. I’ve still a few episodes to go until the end of the series, but I can’t imagine my thirst for this world being quenched in just a few more hours… I guess I should be thankful that showrunner Kalogridis didn’t just snap up the options for Morgan’s first Takeshi Kovacs book then... but for all the others as well. This could be the start of something special.