Netflix jumps into the world of cyberpunk with big budget, theatrical production values and an engrossing setting with Altered Carbon
Netflix‘s Altered Carbon doesn’t waste any time throwing viewers into its grim, futuristic, dystopian world. The opening scenes show Takeshi Kovacs’ (Byron Mann) body, or “sleeve,” brutally killed by U.N. Protectorate soldiers. Kovacs then wakes up 250 years later in the year 2384 in a new sleeve (Joel Kinnaman). He soon finds that he’s the property of the world’s wealthiest man, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) and received a sentence of eternity in prison for his crimes against the Protectorate.
Bancroft offers a full pardon to Kovacs as well as enormous amounts of money in exchange for helping him solve a murder ‒ his own. In an attempt to convince him to help, Bancroft shows Kovacs the diary of Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the leader of the Envoys. Kovacs initially rejects Bancroft’s offer but he’s haunted by memories of his sister (Dichen Lachman) and Quell. After considering destroying his stack to permanently kill himself and escape the horrors of his past, Kovacs accepts Bancroft’s offer and decides to “finish the mission.”
At the center of the premise for Altered Carbon is the cortical stack technology. If your sleeve dies, your consciousness is retained in the stack and can be downloaded into a completely new sleeve. This process can continue indefinitely unless you run into the unfortunate situation where your stack is destroyed. Kovacs himself has had numerous sleeves over his lifetime and is the last of the Envoys. Everyone he knew is believed to be long dead. Other notable characters include Poe (Chris Conner), the artificial intelligence inhabiting the Raven hotel, and Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a member of the Bay City Police Department. All of this serves as a backdrop for a dark, gritty murder mystery.
Altered Carbon throws a lot at viewers right from the start and presents such a rich and detailed world that “Out of the Past” gave our roundtable a lot to discuss. So let’s meet our guests!
Aaron (@octobermidnight) – A communications specialist, lover of all things cyberpunk, and avid music/movie/comic/video game fanatic.
Gav (@GavinUK86) – Lover of video games, science fiction, comic books, science fiction, animation, heavy metal and of course, science fiction.
David (@DavidRP91) – Aspiring actor/writer, lover of music, TV, comic books and movies. Vocal advocate of LGBTQ representation in TV and film.
Sydney (@TappyToeClaws) – Part-time nerd, full-time beer-loving theropod
Rae (@reviewsbyrae) – Star Wars, Supernatural and science fiction fan obsessed with all things storytelling
1. Takeshi Kovacs found himself waking up in a new sleeve 250 years after the death of his last sleeve. How do you think you would react if you found out that you’ve been dead for 250 years?
Aaron (@octobermidnight): Quite disoriented, I’m sure. It’d be a real test of one’s mental and physical capacities to be able to find your footing, though I assume it’d also be dependent upon if this was my first resleeving or if I was used to the process by now. I’m sure having the training and skills of an Envoy wouldn’t hurt!
Gav (@GavinUK86): Shocked. Angry. Scared. I think I’d feel every emotion under the sun. Who knows how the world has changed in those 250 years. In our world, everyone I’d ever known would be gone. In Altered Carbon’s world, well, how do you even begin to try to find your loved ones? They could literally look like anybody. I’d feel like such a fish out of water, exactly like Takeshi Kovacs does at this point. If I didn’t remember what happened to me I would need to find out! Why have I been gone so long?
David (@DavidRP91): Firstly, I would be in utter shock and disbelief. Secondly, after getting acclimated to the new (hopefully not dystopian world) I’ve woken up to, I would see my situation as a chance to start over new and to live my life differently.
Sydney (@TappyToeClaws): Far too hard to guess, eh? Everyone likes to think of themselves as a pretty solid rock: capable of dealing with new situations when we must and as they arise. I’d like to picture myself sloughing off the loss of a few lifetimes with a sneer or a laugh and push aside the absurdity with iron-clad pragmatism to ask for a cigarette. But I’ve definitely had breakdowns because someone burnt my morning coffee… So who’s to say?
Rae (@reviewsbyrae): I would definitely NOT be a badass like Takeshi and try to beat down some doctors. I would probably have a psychotic break soon after being spun up and seeing myself in a brand new sleeve — Freaky Friday times a million! I’d need a good, long week to even get my head around the concept of being asleep for 250 years. Plus, I’m incredibly close to my family and friends. I really don’t know what would ground me in my humanity if I woke up one day and they were all gone. It’s such a scary thought, right?
2. If you could live forever through the use of a cortical stack, would you choose to do so? Or would you worry that you’d slowly lose your humanity over time?
Aaron: I’d have to say that’s one of the most difficult questions Altered Carbon makes you ponder. On one hand, our mortality doesn’t have to define us. If we’re good people doing good things, being able to do that over 20 lifetimes only compounds that. On the other hand, it would depend on what the world had become. Would I want to continue if society was a lost cause? How easily would I just give up? What about my family? I’m not sure in the end. But it’s one of the best questions good cyberpunk such as this brings to the forefront!
Gav: I would definitely choose to do so. I would love to live multiple lives through multiple bodies experiencing all the different walks of life. It would open your mind to all sorts of things. I would hope I was a decent enough person I wouldn’t turn into a Meth like the Bancrofts though. Saying that, living that long, I can sort of understand how one could lose themselves. Lose their humanity. People come and go yet there you are watching everything go by. The last man standing. It makes sense that a Meth would only surround themselves with other Meths.
David: I would definitely not choose a life eternal. I feel that after a few lifetimes, life would lose all meaning and start to feel repetitive and one would eventually become jaded, and like Takeshi, want to end the pain and the misery.
Sydney: I think I have a touch too much scientific curiosity and the consequent tendency towards immortality to turn down an opportunity for anything that approximated immortality. I don’t know if I’d be able to hunker down and stay in one place to amass an implacable center of wealth and influence though. Assuming I had the chance to re-sleeve myself ad (potential) nauseam, I would be off to everywhere BUT the familiar. All of those daily-life opportunity costs suddenly evaporating under the weight of years to explore every angle? Sign me up and get me LOTS of travel vouchers.
Rae: That was one of my biggest questions once we find out that Laurens Bancroft is around 360 years old. Is he even human? Are any of the Meths truly human? Is the thought of our impending death what makes us human? Does immortality stop us from being empathetic toward others? So many questions! But, I gotta say… I don’t think I’d want to use a cortical stack. That doesn’t make me a Neo-Catholic either! I would never stop someone else from using one.
3. Laurens Bancroft tried to hire Takeshi to solve a murder ‒ his own. While not a lot of information is given at this stage of the story, who do you think killed him? Why would they not destroy his stack?
Aaron: It could be any of a number of suspects, from himself to his wife…to someone hungry for his wealth or power. There could even be someone blackmailing him. Perhaps they killed him without destroying his stack to let him know they could get to him. That they could get away with the perfect crime, so whatever they want him to do, he’d better do it. A classic murder mystery is always fun to watch play out.
Gav: Whoever is responsible did actually destroy his stack. Bancroft mentions to Takeshi about his “RD”. His real death. Him being rich, his automatic backup would’ve created a new stack in a new sleeve upon death and he knew that. I actually think he did do it himself. I think he did it to cover up something that he did in that particular sleeve and by killing that one and interrupting the automatic backup, he knew he wouldn’t remember doing it when he woke. Only problem is that his new self, his new sleeve, was obviously far too inquisitive for his own good. Or maybe someone got a hold of one of his sleeves and wanted to send him a message. A vindictive son or daughter perhaps.
David: Right now my prime suspect is Laurens’ wife. She must’ve found out he was cheating on her or something of the like, driving her to shoot him in the head in a fit of rage. The culprit is either her or one of Laurens’ children.
Sydney: Am I excused from answering this question? Having read the books and listened to the consequent audio production of them several times over and just recently in preparation for the Netflix release, I am decidedly biased. What I think and what I know are irrevocably mixed at this point in my fandom career. It is a wonderfully juicy take on the classic gumshoe dilemma though, isn’t it? I can’t wait to hear the predictions of viewers who don’t have the book knowledge.
Rae: Oh, man. I don’t know! Part of me feels that Bancroft is the kind of guy who would kill himself if only to get to officially call the last Envoy his property. It’s reasonable to think he set everything up within that 48-hour window, too. He’s super into Quellcrist Falconer and the Envoys’ history. Would he set up an entire scheme just to get Takeshi? Maybe! Or maybe it’s an obvious choice, like a disgruntled family member.
4. Netflix appears to have spent a great deal of money on the production side of Altered Carbon. What do you think of the overall look of the show? Does it believably sell the futuristic world that it’s set in?
Aaron: Definitely. The look of the show has the exact same aesthetic as what you’d imagine while reading the novel. Like all good cyberpunk tales, it has the futuristic neon city, grimy rain-soaked streets, and eclectic characters. It also has touches of a sort of post-futuristic feel, with bicycles still being used and Bancroft with his collection of “old time” trinkets. I think they nailed it.
Gav: It looks absolutely fantastic. You can tell just how much time was spent on getting the visuals just right. I noticed Richard Morgan is listed as a consultant in the credits so I hoped it turned out looking exactly how he imagined it in his head when he was writing the original story back in 2002. I think it has the general sci-fi/cyberpunk look nailed. The lighting, the neon, the dark filthy alleyways and the rundown beaten up tech littering the streets. The noir element of the story blends really well with that science fiction. It just works. To me, it absolutely feels like a place that could hypothetically exist at some undetermined point in the future. Scary as that may seem.
David: The VFX of the show is mostly convincing and at times even breathtaking. Bay City looks realistic enough but my favorite place was the Aerium, they did a great job making that part of the world look palpable. I love the sets and the locations! They are very well constructed, especially Suntouch House and Raven hotel. The set designer did a great job bringing to life the high-tech opulence of both places.
Sydney: The look of the show, to say nothing of the soundtrack (because, damn), is fantastic. Since I’ve been a fan of the series and of the author’s in general, I’m in fangirl heaven to see something that I love so much be given such considerable artistic and monetary consideration. The whole world construction actually seems a lot further on the slider scale of “futuristic grim-dark” than I always pictured it when reading, more to the Blade Runner end of the spectrum than Minority Report. I can certainly groove with it, though.
Rae: It reminds me a lot of Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 from last year. There are quite a few similarities: replicants vs. sleeves, tons of AI, the disparaging societal gaps, the grittiness of future on Earth, technology as a double-edged sword, rampant prostitution and the disgusting treatment of the lower class by high society and government/public institutions. All of these themes are noticeable in the scene where Takeshi is walking around after taking a handful of drugs in that wonderful unicorn backpack. Overall, I really appreciate the care Netflix took with the look of the show and think it sells a futuristic world that makes sense for the storyline. I love it!
5. Out of all of the characters introduced in the first episode, which one stands out the most to you? Who would you like to learn more about?
Aaron: Laurens Bancroft. Not simply because it’s masterfully portrayed by the great James Purefoy, but because I’ve always been drawn to these kinds of characters. Is he really the antagonist? What are his motives? You’re always waiting for the shoe to drop and the big twist to be revealed, and the anticipation and dread of finding out what really happened is always the best part of any story, regardless of genre. I hope we learn more about him as the season progresses.
Gav: Poe. Or should I say Edgar Allen Poe. He leapt off the screen as soon as Takeshi started talking to him. I would love to learn more about him and any other AI’s and what sort of establishments they might run. Are they all hotels? Are some places more…seedy, than The Raven? Why doesn’t anyone use the hotels anymore? How clingy is he? So many questions.
David: The one that stands out the most to me is without a doubt, Takeshi. Joel Kinnaman has a very enjoyable devil-may-care presence and does a wonderful job with the physicality of the role. He also balances the brutal, violent side of Tak with the emotion and the trauma surrounding the past life he continually relives in his mind. The one character I’d like to see more of is Takeshi’s sister, Reileen.
Sydney: The novels are written noir-detective style first-person, so Kovacs always has been and always will the central figure of the story for me. Even though Martha Higareda’s Kristin Ortega is flawless (gratuitous chef kiss). Kovacs is obviously one of the first characters we meet but what really sells things is the way that Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee manage to splice the character together into one man. The acting of the same character through two different faces is seriously impressive and incredibly effective.
Rae: I’d have to first choose Takeshi, obviously. I can’t resist a brooding anti-hero with a dark past and both Will Yun Lee and Joel Kinnaman do such an impressive job portraying this character in different time periods. In this first episode, we see an angry, biting sarcasm that’s just brilliant, but also an underlying intensity that draws you in you want to know his story and what he’s going to do next. But both Poe, the AI hotel manager, and Lt. Ortega quickly became wonderfully nuanced characters, giving us a feel for their complexities as “humans” in this world. And they’re both great foils to Takeshi.
6. At the end of the episode, Takeshi sees his former partner and she tells him to “finish the mission.” It’s enough to prevent him from committing suicide. What do you think Quellcrist meant by that?
Aaron: I believe that’s one of the storyline threads that will be slowly revealed throughout the season. Since she was part of the rebellion, it has to be something to do with that. Perhaps Quell knew that even though they may be wiped out entirely, as long as one cortical stack made it then all hope would not be lost. Even if it’s 250 years in the future, I can’t wait to find out!
Gav: I think it’s more of a mantra the Envoys had. Always finish the mission. They always feel the need to keep pushing on and pushing through any difficulties that may crop up. This particular issue is that Takeshi didn’t want to be taken out of storage and definitely did not want to be on Earth. Like I mentioned earlier, he feels like a fish completely out of water. He doesn’t know which way is up. Quell is reminding him to keep at it. Figure it out. Don’t give up. And as we saw, their previous connection and her words help him through it.
David: The way I see it, Falconer wants Takeshi to topple the elitist empire the Meths have built for themselves. She wants him to succeed in their goal of freeing society from the chokehold the privileged few have on it.
Sydney: The “Quell” we see is a figment of Kovac’s mind, plastered together from his memories of the woman and his own feelings about her. A memory of the imposing figure that she was into him. At the end of the day, that’s Kovacs himself and he’s too much of a “badass motherf—er” to take an easy way out. Or, it’s entirely possible that he really believes that is Quell herself and he’s still just a soldier taking orders: Keep on going, take what is offered.
Rae: Quell is such an interesting character because we only see her through flashbacks or hallucinations from Takeshi’s point of view, which are clearly biased. His memory of her creates a sort of filtered view of who she likely was when she was alive. “Finish the mission” obviously has something to do with his duty as an Envoy, whether it’s toppling the Meths from the inside or creating another generation of Envoys, Takeshi clearly believes he needs to do it in order to honor Quell and possibly his sister, Rei?
7. Based on what you’ve seen of the show so far, what are your general thoughts on it? Would you recommend it based on the first episode?
Aaron: As a biased fan of all things cyberpunk, I think the first episode was great, and would recommend it to anybody. Not just fans of the cyberpunk genre, though. It does well to feel relatable to anyone who loves a good murder mystery or solid drama series as well. It’s dense enough with underlying themes and symbols (loved seeing a Caduceus and Ouroboros in the opening credits) to warrant repeated viewings and make it well worth the watch. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out. I honestly think they have a hit on their hands!
Gav: I’m really impressed. The world, the characters and the central mystery are all fascinating. The casting is great. The music is great. Personally, there aren’t any standout negatives I could add. It’s all positive from me. I wouldn’t just recommend the first episode, I would tell everyone to watch it all immediately. I know I will be!
David: They’re definitely trying to fit a lot of storyline into 1 hour episodes and it can feel a bit disjointed at times but so far I like the show. The main thing that attracted me to the show was costume extraordinaire Ann Foley and Joel Kinnaman and I do not regret my decision to watch the show. The costume work is impeccable (I really liked the CTAC Praetorians with their arachnoid helmets) and the acting is strong. The show is a must-watch for fans of sci-fi. I’d certainly recommend it.
Sydney: I’m hard to please and a huge fan of the source material – not an easy audience for any kind of adaptation. After the first episode? I’m champing at the bit for more. Luckily, the Netflix mini-series medium allows me to dive head first into the next one. The effort and cost that was sunk into this production is a great sign that has me seriously salivating. I’m more than happy to have my cynicism of adaptation staved off for at least 45 minutes.
Rae: I think it’s another win for Netflix, especially with fans of classic, gritty, let’s-think-about-things science fiction. The acting is superb, especially Kinnaman and Lee. They both have an intense charisma that makes it easy to get sucked into the story and the supporting cast is also wonderful so far. If you’re someone who loves a good noir mystery laced with science fiction, questions regarding tech and humanity, and copious amounts of sass, this show is a must.
Final Verdict: Violent, grim, disturbing, and oddly beautiful at times, Netflix’s Altered Carbon delivers a fully realized and engaging cyberpunk world right from the start
Regardless of how you walk away feeling about Altered Carbon‘s first episode, it’s difficult to argue that it’s ugly. It’s quite the opposite. Netflix has clearly spent a lot of money to create the show’s futuristic setting, and it really paid off. From the gorgeously rendered opening credits that set the tone for the series to the rainy, dark, and dreary Bay City to the beautiful and almost angelic look to the Aerium, Altered Carbon might just be the best looking show the Netflix has produced to date.
But Netflix didn’t just spend a lot of money on the show’s look. They also assembled an incredibly diverse and talented cast. The characters themselves are complicated and well-established right from the start. While the first episode doesn’t explore the cortical stack in a lot of detail, enough uses of the technology are on display to show off its miraculous and horrifying potential. The mystery introduced in the first episode is intriguing and provides just enough of a hook to make us want more.
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While the show is beautiful and the world building is extremely detailed, “Out of the Past” throws so much information at the viewer that it might be overwhelming to new viewers. Both the premise and setting are dark and disturbing, and Altered Carbon doesn’t shy away from the darker impulses of humans that can live forever. This isn’t a weakness of the series by any means. It’s doing exactly what it set out to achieve. However, the content may be too violent or disturbing for some viewers.
With Altered Carbon Netflix has jumped into the complicated world cyberpunk sci-fi. It’s always risky when attempting to produce a series for the genre. Many have tried and failed. It’s difficult to say how Altered Carbon will develop over the course of its first season. But based on what’s presented in “Out of the Past,” we can’t wait to see where the show takes us.