‘Altered Carbon’ Review: Death is Not the End in Netflix’ Sprawling Future Noir Blockbuster
The first bite is always with the eye so who am I to start this by commenting on things like nuance and detail? Altered Carbon is first-and-foremost a dizzyingly beautiful TV Show; the resources that have gone into crafting its visually arresting cyberpunk universe will never go amiss as the shocking blues and cold steels scratch across your senses and provide a greeting before asking you to wipe that stupid smile off your face.
For most people in Altered Carbon, death doesn’t last. Technological innovations have allowed our consciousness to be uploaded remotely to computer chips called “stacks” and our bodies (now called “skins”) are just the wrappers that our stacks come in and can be as disposable as a well used condom if you’re wealthy enough to afford such a luxury.
The show explores a would-be scenario in which the wealthy have adapted to living forever and have risen from being millionaires to acquiring an almost-biblical status and they are showcased to be as cruel as the gods of any atheistic nightmare. These individuals are known as Meths. Meths derive their name from Methuselah – the man who supposedly lived to be over 900 years old according to The Hebrew Bible. They have a taste for blood and fetishise the brittle construct of the mere mortal – with each becoming a form of contradictory god, killing and double-crossing with pleasure instead of dying for our sins. We also see the seedy-underbelly that lies below in the land of the “normal people.” This is where the Blade Runner aesthetic comes into play – as in it IS the market from Blade Runner, down to the opaque umbrellas, neon lighting and passing Asian cyclists. This isn’t so much a gripe as it is an unavoidable thing due to the subject matter. Looking generic is simply trying to predict the future in a realistic sense.
The show focuses on the journey of Takeshi Kovacs, a disgruntled fugitive and former military type who is subsequently killed and reawakened in a new body belonging to actor Joel Kinnaman – 250 years later by ultra-wealthy aristocrat Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purefoy. Bancroft has been the victim of a blaster bolt – his brains still splattered all over the walls of his literal ivory tower in the sky, kept there as a reminder of what he’s been through – and tasks present-day-Kovacs with solving his murder in exchange for wealth and a full pardon from The UN. The Bancrofts are not just rich, they are so powerful that they have been able to fund their immortality by buying new skins and have lived as long as Kovacs has been dead.
Kovacs is joined on his journey by multiple merry bands of helpers and partners, from the fiercely portrayed Edgar Allen Poe addict, known as “Poe” (played by Chris Conner), to the unstable and love-lost Medic Vernon Elliot (played by Ato Essandoh.) By far the standout in the show has to be the badass female lead Police Lieutenant Kristin Ortega played by Martha Higareda.
The show crosscuts between this present day storyline and the storyline of Kovacs’s former life where he is played by the equally charismatic Will Yun-Lee and if it sounds complicated, it is – just as every hardcore sci-fi project should be. Like the Blade Runners and their ilk before it, Altered Carbon takes its influences from classic film noir and with that comes a web of intrigue and mystery that the show’s protagonists must navigate in order to be free.
I do enjoy how complicated the show is. Our heroes are thrown down a twisting, turning rabbit hole and for the most-part the audience isn’t given as much information as something like a mainstream cinematic release, so we are left to determine the answers to the puzzles for ourselves initially. By the end, however, the story is hardly mind-bending as we are let down gently by smart exposition which helps tie up most loose ends.
This is where some people might be turned off. Story-wise, the show navigates the ten hour runtime by carefully building its narrative from two ends: Joel Kinaman’s Kovacs in the city, and Will Yun Lee’s younger Kovacs hiding out with The Envoys in the forest. This is done so that the answers we seek will come forth as those story strands meet in the middle. The material on display is so dense that following each strand of the story is initially very challenging. I say this with familiarity as a lover of hard sci-fi stories – this is par for the course.
Netflix seems to be aiming for “their” Game of Thrones, except this story, with its many characters, is set within a backdrop that’s begging for some attention of its own. What we have here is a neo-noir tale with a loud backdrop that focuses on an ensemble cast. Even at 10 hours, it can be problematic trying to juggle each member of each faction in such a loud and restless environment, and far too easy to lend my attention to the minor characters placed within the tranquil forest backdrop of the flashbacks. In truth, the show’s need to emphasise both time-periods wore on my patience as I was constantly being transported to less important characters who were only given a fraction of the screen time that they deserved.
Would I trade in parts of the (deep breath) surprisingly-charismatic sociopathic present-day version of our lead anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs played by Joel Kinnaman, in order to provide more screen time to the equally charismatic past-version of Kovacs played by Lee? I would, yes. But the supporting cast is strong enough to keep such problems from ruining my fun and the story sticks its landing.
Altered Carbon is neo-realist parable that explores creed and the brittle nature of the human condition. The show is a triumph for Netflix and is definitely worth watching. The cast is great, and while some of the time-hopping can leave a lot to be desired in terms of allowing our main protagonist’s personality to be fully explored, the supporting cast takes a lot of the weight on their shoulders. It’s as philosophical as it is beautiful and will hopefully make a lasting impression on the television industry. The streaming company’s experiment has paid off.
This leaves me reminding each studio that a company made a single 10-hour neo-noir sci-fi blockbuster for around $70,000,000 US, and if something like Altered Carbon can exist, there is no excuse. What was thought of previously as a mid-budget-target can now produce a sprawling spectacle. The show’s very existence has provided an opportunity for change and the major studios should really think about taking it. Because if they don’t more VOD Studios will come and steal whatever corners of this market that they can.
4 / 5