In the future of Altered Carbon, humanity has found a way to continue living indefinitely. Everyone has a stack – a small metallic hard-drive implanted at the base of their necks. The stack keeps a copy of everything that a person is – their thoughts, their memories, all backed up in a small jewel like container. If a person dies as long as their stack is intact they can effectively be reborn into a new body (or sleeve in the language of the show). The rich have the money to create endless clones of themselves and back up their memories remotely via satellite. The poor have to make do with whatever sleeve is available (such as a young victim of a car crash who finds herself re-sleeved in the body of an elderly woman).
Enter Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), the last of the Envoys. After being killed by police he is awakened to his surprise in a new sleeve. He is promptly hired by Laurens Bancroft, (James Purefoy) an obscenely rich member of the ruling classes- the Methuselahs (or Meths for short). Bancroft wants Kovacs to solve a murder for him – his own. Bancroft was murdered in his own home in Elysian, a beautiful town in the sky, far above the overcrowded, rat infested cities below. Bancroft’s home is virtually impenetrable so he wants Kovacs’ skills to identify how the killer got to him. But Kovacs has his own problems with thugs out to get the previous occupant of his “sleeve” a policeman called Ryker. Not to mention that Ryker’s partner Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) is dogging his every move. Can Kovacs solve Bancroft’s murder and win his freedom?
Post Blade Runner it is almost impossible for anything in the cyberpunk genre to look fresh and unique on screen. The visuals of Altered Carbon (based on the book by Richard K. Morgan) with its noir-esque filthy, rain drenched cities showered in neon are Blade Runner on a TV budget. As such when Altered Carbon dropped on Netflix at the beginning of February it was met by polite shrugs by the press. Which is a shame as there’s a lot to enjoy here. Altered Carbon is a fast paced, compelling, ultra-violent action noir. Kinnaman is good value as Kovacs. Physique wise he looks as if he’s been chiselled out of rock yet he has the hard drinking “don’t bother me” attitude of every down on his luck private dick in any film noir you’ve ever seen. He has a nice line in sardonic delivery and manages to ground some of the campier sequences in reality. His role is shared by Will Yun Lee who plays the original Takeshi in flashbacks. This just about rescues the production from criticisms of white washing (which plagued the horrendously misjudged Scarlett Johannson starrer Ghost in the Shell.) That being said there is no reason why Kovacs new “shell” couldn’t have been the same ethnicity as his original other than that they wanted Kinnaman to star so its hardly a solid excuse.
James Purefoy is wonderfully entertaining dialing it up to 11 to play Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft is hundreds of years old, frequently naked and not used to the word no. Purefoy’s innate charm prevents the character from being completely odious. Instead Bancroft is rather interesting – a snake with an inner code. The scene where he delivers toys to a group of plague victims, administering blessings like a priest to his loyal faithful while the plague ravages him before our eyes is fascinating to watch. It’s both a completely grotesque display of privilege (Bancroft can touch the diseased masses knowing that his body will be re-born into a waiting clone) and a genuine attempt to bring a tiny bit of joy to these peoples lives. Bancroft is not without heart.
Martha Higareda is fantastic as Ortega – she gets to play the renegade cop role that doesn’t listen to authority that is so frequently given to a man to play. Ortega is dogged and tough and has deeply personal reasons to keep a good eye on Kovacs. She’s not the only kick ass woman in Altered Carbon. Renee Elise Goldberry (best known as the original Angelica in Hamilton) is mesmerising as rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer (head of the Envoys). Much of the later episodes flash back to Quellcrist teaching her rag tag group and her physique is astonishing. She’s so commanding that hell I’d sign up tomorrow! Although it has to be said that the show is rather bad at explaining exactly why the Envoys are so skilled and feared. Here they’re more akin to the rebellion in Star Wars – a scrappy group fighting a vague imperialistic threat. Dichen Lachman takes a while to appear but makes an indelible impression when she does starring in the single most insane sequence in the entire piece – a completely naked fight scene. Hayley Law as Lizzie Elliot also makes a big impact in the last couple of episodes.
It’s interesting though that in a series all about making connections with people that the most compelling and human character is that of Poe (Chris Connor) (as in Edgar Allen) who is the AI who runs The Raven, the hotel in which Kovacs stays. Connor brings some much needed warmth and humour to a somewhat chilly piece.
Altered Carbon is cheerfully ultra violent and at times very, very dark with it. It features a ton of nudity and I go back and forth on the necessity for it. In this world people’s bodies are just meat suits, sleeves that can be effortlessly replaced as long as your stack is intact and as long as you’re rich enough to afford it. So the nudity makes sense in a way. People attach far less value to their bodies as they can always pick up another one so why would they be prudish or concerned about the naked form. So James Purefoy sauntering into scene butt naked makes sense because of course someone like Bancroft would consider clothing to be optional in a meeting. The Dichen Lachman fight sequence, apart from being completely eye opening in terms of it being the first time I’ve seen a completely naked woman fighting with a sword, also has a lot to say about victims reclaiming their power and agency. For her being naked is a show of ultimate power – she may not be wearing clothes but that doesn’t mean she is stripped. It’s an oddly inspiring sequence.
That being said like so many film noirs Altered Carbon features a lot of sexually abused and murdered women (hey filmmakers how come it’s never male prostitutes being murdered in artistic ways in rain drenched alleyways? How about a little equality between the sexes?) It feels like Altered Carbon wants to be women positive and inspiring and hey “isn’t it awesome that all the ladies don’t care about nudity” while simultaneously telling tales of sex trafficked, mostly nude, mostly terrified, mostly murdered women. You can’t have it both ways guys.
Still Altered Carbon is remarkably progressive in its message that outward appearances and gender really are irrelevant. Grannies can be resurrected for the day in a body of a Nazi skin-head and noone bats an eyelid. A wife returns home to her husband in the body of a man and is welcomed with open arms. It’s quite refreshing in a political climate where gender identity has become such an emotive issue to see a show which is so matter of fact about saying that what you look like, what gender you were born into is irrelevant – what matters is who you truly are inside.
Altered Carbon is now streaming on Netflix