The first four episodes of Altered Carbon offer an intriguing murder mystery as a backdrop for exploring the ramifications of humans living forever on a futuristic Earth
The Show: Altered Carbon
The Network: Netflix
The Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk, Noir
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: Netflix‘s Altered Carbon takes place on Earth in the year 2384. Humanity has expanded out into the universe and developed advanced technology that effectively lets them live forever. This cortical stack technology is implanted in the neck and allows for the human consciousness to be preserved and transferred to other bodies, or “sleeves.” Takeshi Kovacs’ (Byron Mann) sleeve is violently killed and sentenced to eternity in prison for crimes against the U.N. Protectorate.
250 years later, Kovacs wakes up on parole in a new sleeve (Joel Kinnaman) and finds that he’s now the property of the world’s richest man, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft offers Kovacs a full pardon from the Protectorate and an obscene amount of money if Kovacs can solve a murder for him ‒ his own. As a former member of the Colonial Tactical Assault Corp (CTAC), Kovacs occasionally works alongside (or against) Bay City Police Department lieutenant Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda). Kovacs is also assisted by Poe (Chris Conner), an artificial intelligence that is literally a hotel, and Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), a man who has lost most of his family. Occasionally, Kovacs converses with the memory of his Envoy leader Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his sister Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman), both long dead.
Cyberpunk, a subgenre of sci-fi that often explores advanced technology and its connection to humanity, is a difficult genre to translate to live-action. The genre frequently has highly complicated plots that require close attention to detail, a need for a lot of special effects, and high expectations from viewers. Network TV frequently passes on cyberpunk series. Enter Netflix, the streaming giant that produces content just for subscribers, and Altered Carbon, their first attempt to jump into the world of cyberpunk.
At the beginning of the series, a murder mystery acts as the main hook to draw in viewers. It involves a man that is so paranoid about dying that he makes constant backups to be restored in a clone of himself in the event that his stack is destroyed, and he doesn’t remember how his previous sleeve was killed. But more front and center is the exploration of the cortical stack and the Digital Human Freight (DHF) it contains. What would happen if humans could live forever? Would we as a species begin to lose ourselves in newer and more twisted attempts to keep ourselves entertained? How would the less fortunate survive in such a world? Altered Carbon asks all of these questions and more right from the start. But how well-executed is the material it’s exploring? Does Netflix succeed at translating such a difficult and expensive genre to our screens?
Altered Carbon has a big budget Hollywood movie look but its execution is quite unlike most Hollywood movies
Altered Carbon takes place on a futuristic version of Earth. Specifically, Earth in 2384. There are flying cars, massive skyscrapers, giant holographic advertisements on buildings, and a group of wealthy elite (known as Meths) who literally live in the clouds above those who are less fortunate on the ground. Bay City itself is a sprawling metropolis with no clear end in sight. It dominates every exterior shot. It’s often dark and rainy. City streets are crowded. The less fortunate are doomed to live their lives trapped in sleeves they may not want.
Everything about the look of the show screams “expensive.” From Bay City’s dark and imposing skyline to the flying cars to the dirty, dark streets, Altered Carbon looks like a big budget Hollywood movie. The costume and set designs are equally expensive looking and help give the show its futuristic, cyberpunk appearance. But throwing large sums of money at a production won’t automatically produce a well-written, well-acted, or well-shot final product.
“Dystopic pieces are an attempt to wrap a wake-up call in a form that allows people to not feel that they’re watching a documentary, but hopefully in the back of their heads form their opinions at least a little bit based on the possibility of where something left unchecked could go.”
‒ Laeta Kalogridis (creator/showrunner)
While Altered Carbon looks like an expensive Hollywood production on the surface ‒ and it’s clearly an expensive production ‒ it’s far removed from the usual type of story Hollywood tells. Right from the start, “Out of the Past” shows that the series won’t be dumbing things down or simplifying the subject matter. It throws complicated concepts and unique terminology at viewers and assumes that they’re smart enough to keep up. The opening sex scene quickly devolves into CTAC Praetorians assaulting Kovacs and his partner. When he wakes up 250 years later in a new sleeve, he’s still in agony and shock from his previous death. Humans may have found a way to cheat death, but the technology has disturbing ramifications.
From there, the early episodes continue to explore the usage of the cortical stack technology that has made humans effectively immortal. With the ability to live forever or reset someone’s consciousness in virtual environments called constructs, the possibilities extend well beyond simply being moved into a new body, and many of them are highly uncomfortable. The Meths have lived for so long that they’ve grown bored with everyday life and constantly push the limits of what they do to combat their increasing boredom. Illegal facilities allow clients to put people into virtual constructs in order to torture them for information. The targets of such torture are forced to relive agonizing death after agonizing death with no escape.
There are moral and ethical questions being brought to the surface at every level of the storytelling. There’s a complexity to the narrative that promotes discussion and forces viewers to question what is or isn’t the right thing to do without directly giving answers. It presents a concept and expects viewers to navigate the complexities of it. Perhaps the characters make poor choices. Or they may lack a conscience due to living for so long. The end result is a show that expects far more from viewers than a typical Hollywood blockbuster. The production is brilliantly deceptive in that way and is a great example of the kind of stories Hollywood could tell if it took more risks. Thankfully, we have streaming services like Netflix that are willing to ask a bit more from their viewers.
The complicated and well-developed characters are emphasized over the visual spectacle and are portrayed by a talented, diverse cast
Throughout the first four episodes of the show, Altered Carbon introduces a lot of primary and secondary characters. In “Out of the Past,” we’re introduced to Takeshi Kovacs. As former Envoy rebel (or terrorist according to the U.N. Protectorate), Kovacs has been trained to easily drop into any sleeve on any world as casually as changing clothes. Despite being human, Kovacs grew up on one of the Settled Worlds, Harlan’s World. His sister, Reileen, like with everyone else he knew, is long dead.
Kristin Ortega, a Bay City Police lieutenant, grew up in a Neo-Catholic family. Neo-Catholics are opposed to being re-sleeved after death. They believe that human souls won’t make it to heaven if re-sleeved. This often makes them the targets of murder since they won’t be spun up and questioned about who killed them. This creates a complicated dilemma for Ortega as she believes that the cortical stack technology should be used to help catch criminals. These are only a few examples of the many characters Altered Carbon introduces in the first four episodes.
“I’m fully licensed for customer protection. And in any case, his attackers were remarkably rude.”
Without strong, relatable characters, a show can quickly collapse. This is even more important in cyberpunk. Cyberpunk often explores the increasingly blurred line between humans and advanced technology. As technology becomes more advanced, it becomes more and more difficult to separate human from the technology. How does Altered Carbon do this front? Remarkably well.
Despite Kovacs being a futuristic soldier that has inhabited countless sleeves, his love for his sister Rei and former Envoy partner Quellcrist make him immediately relatable. He often acts like he doesn’t care much about what happens to others. Yet he’s often found at the center of confrontations where people have either been victimized or attacked. His motivations for being there tend to be somewhat selfish or self-serving but he has his own sense of what’s right and wrong. Ortega’s complicated relationship with her family is highlighted fairly early. It comes to a head in “Force of Evil” during a Día de Muertos dinner with her family. Her abuela has lived beyond her years by re-sleeving, much to the horror of the rest of her family.
Vernon Elliot’s daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law) was brutally attacked. Without a way to directly help her, he keeps her in a virtual construct so he can visit her. Poe, the artificial intelligence that runs the Raven Hotel, is extremely protective of his guests and will go to almost any lengths to keep them safe. Yes, even blowing them away with high-powered weaponry (don’t worry ‒ he’s fully licensed). These are only a few examples of the types of characters that inhabit Bay City. They might be living over 300 years in the future but most of them are unmistakably human, and that’s where the show can often get uncomfortable. Admitting that humans are capable of the horrors that are sometimes on display is a difficult thing to admit. The balance between relatable traits and futuristic traits is a delicate one. Altered Carbon found that balance and sticks with it throughout the first four episodes. All of this is greatly enhanced by the show’s highly talented cast.
The wealthy elite raise troubling questions about living well beyond the natural human lifespan through the use of advanced technology
In the world of Altered Carbon, the divide between the wealthy and the rest of the human population has grown so wide that the wealthy literally live above the clouds and look down on the rest of humanity. With extreme wealth comes the ability to re-sleeve into as many bodies as they want, including clones of their birth sleeves or clones of other sleeves. Known as the Meths (named after Methuselah from the Hebrew Bible), the wealthy elites have lived for hundreds of years. Laurens Bancroft, the wealthiest man on Earth, has lived for over 360 years. The Meths are so wealthy and have so much influence that they can practically do whatever they want.
The longer the Meths live, the more they experience and the further they need to push the limits of what is morally or ethically sound to keep themselves entertained. Human bodies are already nothing more than vessels for containing the brain coding that’s imprinted in cortical stacks. The Meths look down upon those who live on the ground (often called “grounders”) as see them as commodities. They’re discardable objects to be used for their own amusement. After all, if a sleeve is damaged, all they need to do is clone the original sleeve and imprint the stack with their Digital Human Freight (DHF). The damaged sleeve is thrown out as casually as trash.
“They tell us it’s illegal to download the human mind into anything but a human body. But I say f— that. Laws don’t apply to people like us. So meet Janus, a rapist and a murderer who was scheduled for erasure when I plucked him from the shredder and I offered him a place by my side. It’s too bad he didn’t read the fine print. I was curious what would happen to a man if you downloaded him into a reptile. The neomammalian complex, stuffed into the most base of basal ganglia. For science. Turns out you go quite mad. I tried re-sleeving him once, and he just lay on the ground and writhed. So now he’s a snake forever.”
Living forever may sound like a good idea, but Altered Carbon has a different thesis. The first four episodes give numerous examples of how the technology has unintended long-term consequences. The longer the Meths are alive, the more distant they become from their original human selves. It’s revealed in the third episode, “In A Lonely Place,” that Bancroft has a husband and wife fight each other to the death while other Meths watch with great enthusiasm. It’s all perfectly legal and licensed. Whichever one of them kills the other will receive an upgraded sleeve at Bancroft’s expense. Ortega and Kovacs are deeply disturbed by this but Bancroft shrugs it off. It’s just entertainment after all. The bodies are meaningless.
All of this, while taken to the extreme, isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. We may not yet have the technology to create cortical stacks or the ability to store human minds as DHF, but the divide between the wealthy and the less fortunate has continued to grow. The wealthy will often exploit the less fortunate. Altered Carbon takes that concept and dials it up to eleven. If the wealthy have the money and the means to always be certain they have a fresh new clone to move into and their minds are fully backed up, over time that divide would continue to widen. The rich would get richer and the poor would continue to be left in the dirt.
That widening gap is extremely relevant to the modern world. Throwing in the ability to live forever and actually buy other human bodies as commodities creates a concerning cycle that benefits the rich more and more over time while hurting the grounders more and more. The only limit to what can be done is one’s imagination. It’s troubling stuff. But like all good sci-fi, Altered Carbon asks difficult questions and doesn’t provide easy answers. It’s handled exceptionally well.
Final Verdict: Netflix’s foray into the world of cyberpunk is thought-provoking, multilayered, gritty, violent, and everything we’d expect from the sophisticated genre
Far too often, cyberpunk works visually but fails on the story side of things (e.g., the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie). Or the story is impressive but the world fails to be captured properly. Netflix has succeeded on both fronts. Visually, Altered Carbon is one of the most beautiful shows they’ve produced to date. The world has a gorgeous, dark, ruthlessness to it that that makes Bay City a believable, realistic, and futuristic setting. But the visuals are just the backdrop for the worldbuilding, complicated characters, and detailed story. All of those feel fully realized from the very first moment in “Out of the Past” to the cliffhanger of “Force of Evil.”
Kovacs and Ortega are often at the center of the story but supporting characters like the incredibly perverted yet hilariously polite artificial intelligence Poe help to flesh out the world in unexpected ways. The story itself appears to be more focused on Kovacs’ history than the murder mystery initially introduced. When taken all together, Netflix has not only produced one of their most ambitious series to date. They’ve also created one of the richest cyberpunk worlds ever created in live-action with all the ethical and moral complexity one would expect from it.
One of the largest weaknesses of Altered Carbon is its complexity. The world as presented is incredibly detailed and fully realized. While this is indeed a strength of the series as well, it also makes it far less accessible. The show throws a lot of complicated concepts and new terminology at viewers and expects them to keep up. The intense violence at various points will also be a large turnoff for many. Action sequences are usually fast yet brutal. They’re over quickly but are often quite bloody. The use of a virtual construct as a form of torture is very difficult viewing in “Force of Nature.” The initial murder mystery that’s introduced in the first episode also has very little development in the first four episodes and doesn’t appear to be the intended focus for the season.
Netflix spared no expense when producing Altered Carbon, and that fact shows through at every level of the production. Harrison Yurkiw’s art direction is top notch and helps give the series a unique visual style that perfectly captures the dystopia that is Bay City. Bringing in cinematographer Martin Ahlgren (House of Cards, Daredevil) was a brilliant decision. Bay City is a dark, brooding city filled with bright neon lights and rainy streets. At the same time, small details are never lost. Everything has a moody, noir look to it. Ann Foley’s amazing costume design also helps capture the futuristic world. (Whoever decided to give Kovacs a small pink backpack with the text “Hello Unicorn” on it is a genius.)
But Altered Carbon isn’t all about impressive visuals. The cast is top-notch. Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs is often calm, collected, and stoic but he still conveys more complex emotions through simple changes in body language or dialogue delivery. Martha Higareda is, quite simply, an absolute force of nature as Ortega. She’s a tough, take no nonsense kind of character but she also deeply cares about protecting other grounders. The writing is also excellent throughout. Laeta Kalogridis started off the series with “Out of the Past” and fit in an enormous amount of worldbuilding without it ever feeling like an information dump. Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner’s “Force of Evil” takes a closer look at Kovacs’ past as well as some more disturbing uses for stack technology.
Altered Carbon is a visually impressive, dark, and complicated look at a dystopian future where technology has evolved but humanity’s elite have embraced its basest instincts, and no fan of sci-fi/cyberpunk should give it a miss. The character development, world-building, production values, and overall presentation are state of the art. If the first four episodes are a good indication of the kind of storytelling we can expect from the rest of this show, Netflix might just have the next big hit on their hands.