Death isn’t a problem. That little sentiment causes huge repercussions in the world of Altered Carbon, the new Netflix series based on the book of the same name. It’s a grand and grimy exploration of what that means for humans. What changes and, more importantly, what doesn’t change. It’s a dark and introspective look at ourselves that only the best sci-fi ever manages.
That’s not to say what they’ve done here is the best ever, but it certainly is damn fine work. Laid atop the rock solid foundation of a tremendously fascinating (if well-tread) foundation is glorious production values, a keen cyberpunk aesthetic, and top-shelf performances. The show wavers slightly as it pads out the central mystery with threads that end up perfunctory, but it’s mostly a steadfast ride.
In many ways, it’s a familiar one, too, as mentioned before. Set in a future where alien technology has gifted us the ability to store and transfer consciousness in spinal implants called stacks, death is pretty much meaningless. Our bodies are now referred to as sleeves, and when it goes, we simply resleeve into another one. No sweat.
It borrows heavily from the heavily influential Ghost in the Shell properties where cyberbrains are partially or fully accompanied by cybernetic body parts, shuttling around existences like they were in mail tubes. It cops almost the entirety of Blade Runner‘s critical presentation of the neo-noir, wet neon alleyway, right down to the protagonist’s oversized future trench coat. And, of course, there’s everything The Matrix offers up in the way of a singular, techno-enabled hero shacking up with a resistance. And the trench coat.
(It also shares significant overlap with Joss Whedon’s doomed Dollhouse series, which I really only mention because of the involvement of two of the show’s main cast. Odd and interesting kismet.)
That might be enough to put some viewers off with that sense of walking over the same old ground you’ve seen before, and that’s fair. But the specifics of how Altered Carbon deals with these ideas is remarkably engaging. By following Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman/Will Yun Lee), we view it through his lens of being an Envoy and his overblown exposure to the past and present at the same time.
It’s a bit Arrow-ish in that way, using flashbacks to fill out the backstory of the hero while informing the actions of the present day’s active thread, but it’s such a dense world of complex systems and social currents that it’s pretty much necessary if you want to avoid an info dump. Granted, they still do a lot of talking right into the camera, but the way it all eventually culminates and meshes together with the present makes for a thrilling climax.
It makes the show somewhat of a hard sell. Even though the back half is a truly wild ride, the present day setup can be kind of a slog. Takeshi, woken up 250 years after being apprehended for terrorism, is bought by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the world’s elite, to solve his own murder. And it unfortunately takes all the way until Takeshi reluctantly accepts the job for this hardboiled detective story to really get going.
Once it kicks off, you get the full taste of what the show has to offer. Aside form the purely decadent, endlessly rainy dressing, it also has some of the best action sequences Netflix has to offer. The choreography is a mean, delicious whirlwind of explosive hits and blood splatters. But it can also have some of the worst depicting of the action, varying wildly with a new director almost every episode.
Sometimes it’s so muted it feels like Christopher Nolan muddling through a Batman-shaped tunnel and other times it’s so hyperactive it’s basically a Paul Greengrass love letter. Though at every turn, whether or not someone is getting a fist to the face or a stern talking to, the future presented in the show is a wildly diverse one. Not only is there a tremendous representation of different ethnicities (and yes, the fear of the whitewashing component for Takeshi is real, but it is handled appropriately), but their beliefs also become a part of the themes of the season, especially as Takeshi’s cohort Kristin Ortega’s (Martha Higareda) thread becomes more prominent.
The themes are among the strongest parts of the show. The religious population that denies the ability to be resleeved smashes up against the ridiculously rich one-percenters who can afford to live literally forever, highlighting the idea that once death is off the table, what drives these two disparate but oddly related camps? Fear of hell, fear of sins, fear of wasting away into nothing. It’s ripped out of us like a loose tooth and reveals the greatest horror: we’re still the same as before. We’re selfish and scared and dysfunctional to the end.
Some of the representation can definitely make viewers uncomfortable. There is a lot of nudity in this show—seriously, a lot—and while it’s absolutely in line with the idea that the body is nothing but a product, it can also feel more gratuitous than anything HBO has ever done. But it also uses it to play within the consequence of identity, especially as Takeshi enters his sleeve and claims it as his own.
Altered Carbon has a rough start and stumbles a bit along the way to the finish, but it is such an incredibly and thoroughly enthralling presentation of the future that you can’t really look away. And once the narrative fundaments take hold, it comes together into something that Netflix’s original programming lineup has been desperately missing. It’s full of action and thoughtful consequence and self-examination as well as cyberpunk flair. What more could you want?
Final Score: 8 out of 10