Craggus had planned for this to be my first review, but I wanted to get into the reviewing groove before tackling this. It should be apparent from what follows but if it isn’t, I want to make one thing clear: the concept of “Altered Carbon”, along with its execution, requires a considerable amount of talent and guile to pull off a fictional world this complex and the good news is that the show’s creators have them in spades.
Takeshi Kovacs ((Best. Name. Ever.) Joel Kinnaman), a former activist and soldier, awakens from a three-hundred-year stasis inside a different body on an unfamiliar world. He is tasked with solving the murder of one of the richest men in the universe, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Can he solve the mystery and ultimately gain his freedom?
The universe the series builds out provides a rich and almost limitless canvass for the writers to explore, provided the Netflix budget will allow. Visually, this is a show that rivals “Game of Thrones” for sheer spectacle. Every episode is beautifully shot and in bringing to life its neon haze and dystopian gloom, no expense has been spared. Yes, it owes a massive stylistic debt to “Blade Runner”, but the responsibility for that sits with Richard K Morgan upon whose book the series is based and, let’s be honest, there isn’t much future dystopian sci-fi made since 1982 which doesn’t tip the hat to Ridley Scott’s celebrated adaptation of Philip K Dick’s “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”
The series’ more unique twist is that it’s set in a universe where it’s very hard to truly die, provided you have the necessary means. Eternal life is achievable, for a price. An individual’s consciousness (or ‘stack as it’s referred to in the show) can be uploaded to a cloud-based technology that allows you to inhabit/ be downloaded into a different body (‘sleeve’) each time the previous one becomes unnecessary or damaged. Think Enterprise Rent-A-Car, but for bodies. It’s instantly more comfortable with the gender-fluid ramifications of this than, say, “Doctor Who” has been as there are interesting moments peppered throughout such as seeing see two grown men (who turn out to be husband and wife in the sleeves) having a domestic while they try and salvage the damaged stack of their daughter who’s been isolated in her own virtual world to protect her from insanity (see? Told you it was a complicated show).
“Altered Carbon” boasts my favourite episode of TV for 2018 (so far) in “Force Of Evil” (Episode 4), which features a virtual reality interrogation. It’s a clever, futuristic homage to “Casino Royale” with a Millennial twist combined with the Police Station scene from “The Terminator”. It was chuffing ace! As Takeshi, Joel Kinnaman finally gets an opportunity worthy of his talents deserve after misfires like “Suicide Squad”, the “Robocop” remake and his backseat driving in the US version of “The Killing”. He brings a real sense of menace to the role, doing enough to differentiate it from the Deckard-style lead character it’s occasionally written as. James Purefoy, on the other hand, literally chews up every scene he has as Bancroft and really isn’t in it enough. The rest of the supporting cast are mainly solid although Dichen Lachman as Takeshi’s sister isn’t quite as believable as her brother, which is a shame as the show needed her to be. However, my favourite character of all has to be Edgar Poe (Chris Conner), the virtual reality hotelier that shelters Takeshi from harm’s way and acts as his enforcer.
There are a few elements, though, that prevent “Altered Carbon” from being an all-time classic. Firstly, again, Netflix don’t quite stick the landing and the finale doesn’t match the style, pace or menace of the previous episodes; you see the twist coming a mile off and one of the two main villains is a bit lame. Secondly, the back story of Takeshi Kovacs being part of an uprising against the government didn’t really gel with the overall narrative and at times felt a bit “Avatar”. Unnecessary and overindulged, its presence is likely linked to the third reason: Netflix’s ‘episode count before story’ approach.
Don’t get me wrong, this show is superb and worth a binge, but maybe prepare yourself for it. The show didn’t fare well with a lot of other reviewers which kind of surprises me. It’s almost like we’ve become far too impatient and intolerant of a show finding its feet these days. This is season one of an adaptation of a three-book series (although this season tells a self-contained story) and might not really come into its own until it spreads its wings beyond its source material if Netflix decides to renew it for a second season. Anyway, if you want a fresh, new spin on some interesting sci-fi concepts, “Altered Carbon”, a show that isn’t afraid to take chances and put all of the budget up on screen, is a great way to keep both your stack and your sleeve occupied.
Watch this if you like “Westworld”, “Blade Runner”, “The Matrix”, “Bioshock”