It’s been a while since I’ve watched something (relatively) new that had a big impact on me. As I’ve been honing my own skills and studying the art of screenwriting and storytelling, my standards and preferences when it comes to media have heightened, so it’s become quite hard to find something that would truly amaze me. Altered Carbon achieved that easily.
Aired on Netflix in 2018, Altered Carbon gives us a look into a future where humans are no longer bound to their physical bodies. The essence of a person is found in a medallion-like device called a “stack”, which is implanted in the back of one’s neck. As long as the stack isn’t damaged, you can essentially live forever. It’s in this world that Takeshi Kovacs, a former soldier on the losing side of a war, is hired by wealthy Laurens Bancroft to investigate the death of… Laurens Bancroft.
I’ve heard of this show back when it aired, but for some reason didn’t watch it until a few weeks ago. Somehow, the timing worked out perfectly, as I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it in the same way had I watched it before I accumulated all this new knowledge and experience.
I have to mention that although it has two seasons, they are so vastly different in themes, style, technique (and given the idea of the show, Takeshi isn’t even played by the same actor), and dare I say it… quality, that I’m reserving my comments for season 1 only. You want to give season 2 a try too, be my guest, but be warned that it’s pretty much a completely different show.
With all this said, here are 10 reasons Altered Carbon (season 1) is totally worth a watch:
1. The setting. Many sci fi shows and movies have tried to nail this cyberpunk, dystopian future in a way that is both relatable and new. Not many succeed as well as Altered Carbon. Season 1 is set in Bay City, whose sights are technologically advanced (hologram ads, evocative neon signs, screens everywhere) while also being decrepit and filthy, a contrast that speaks to more than just set design. It’s also covered in dark clouds, which makes it permanently dark. In one word, it’s the underworld. But up above, over the clouds, sit the “Meths” (from Methuselah), the filthy rich who benefit from pristine gardens, sunshine, and order. The show hammers in its theme easily using just the setting and visuals, which I found to be really cool.
2. The theme. Considering this new way of life where your physical body (called “sleeve”) doesn’t dictate whether you live or die, a lot of ethical and moral questions arise. The wealthy can afford to make clones of their bodies and store their consciousness in satellites which back up their stacks every 48 hours, so they can essentially live forever as they are. In contrast, the poor are subject to a lot more dangers, as re-sleeving comes at a cost, and violent sex work and fights for the entertainment of the rich are the norm now. The extent to which the poor can go to earn a new sleeve or make ends meet, and the pleasure the rich take in controlling lives like this aren’t sugarcoated and are addressed heavily as the show goes on. It’s what makes the show raw, dark, and sadly relatable even if it’s set over 300 years in the future. Human nature will stay the same regardless of society’s advances.
3. The rules. With new worlds come new sets of rules. Double-sleeving is technically illegal (can’t have 2 of you running around) and so is cloning (except of course, if you’re rich and keep the printer to yourself). Real Death is rare, but it happens, and so murder is still a punishable offence and police still have to deal with cases like this. In cases of death with the stack still intact, detectives can place the stack in a temporary sleeve and get the victim’s testimony, which makes solving crimes a lot more interesting. But with that comes the idea of religion and real death vs new death. There are some who refuse to be brought back after they’ve died, religious people who believe in only 1 life or people who recognize immortality isn’t how humans are supposed to live. Of course, even this is spun around and used against the law, as the people in power can fake these decisions to stop victims from testifying. It’s pretty much like an organ donor card: you don’t sign off on it, you can’t do it. All these new rules bring with them neat conflicts and obstacles for the characters, as well as things to think about for the audience. This is a world created with much thought and care to the theme and very relevant even to our current time.
4. The plot. Although solving Bancroft’s death does take a backseat when more complicated issues arise, it does set up a nice style of storytelling for the show. The noir approach to murder investigations by a rugged, soulless antihero (who in truth cares too much) isn’t original, but it’s rare enough that, if executed well, makes for a wonderful piece of work. It’s what gives season 1 the spark that it sadly lost in season 2, and it’s the initial hook that gets the audience interested in both the action and Takeshi himself. Despite him not really wanting to help out a Meth (after all, he fought against them in the war), and the audience being made to sympathize with that, you can’t help but want to know what happened. Did Bancroft really kill himself? If so, why? If not, then who did it? It’s enough to make you want to continue watching, but what really takes you all the way is-
5. Takeshi. Boy oh boy is he an interesting one. In season 1 we see three different versions of Takeshi: the original, played by Will Yun Lee, a kid guilty of patricide who’s taken in and turned into a perfect soldier, but who then turns against the system when he meets Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the leader of the rebels; post-war Takeshi, played by Byron Mann, a man who’s lost everything he’s cared for and has nothing left to lose but is still fighting the good fight; and present Takeshi, played by Joel Kinnaman. This is a guy who’s been “on ice” for over 200 years after being caught (as post-war Takeshi) and re-sleeved into a police officer to solve a murder he couldn’t care less about. Plagued by memories of the past, regrets of lost love and long-gone family, Takeshi’s just really tired of this shit. Kinnaman perfectly captures Takeshi’s pain and exhaustion while also making him incredibly funny and charming. He’s an asshole, but you can’t help but like him. As the series goes on, Mister “I Don’t Care About Anything or Anyone” ends up making friends and caring deeply, while also unraveling some pretty damn complicated mysteries. He’s the hero this world is perfect for, an imperfect man who is willing to sacrifice himself for good. He also wears a pink unicorn backpack while killing a whole room full of people so that’s cool.
6. Takeshi wouldn’t be nearly as cool if he wouldn’t be surrounded by other cool characters. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) might seem like a handful at first, a police lieutenant a little bit too obsessed with Takeshi (not in a lame crush way, she actually hates him), but as they start working together and easing off on that hate, she becomes even more badass than before and ultimately plays an important role in the story’s endgame. She’s got her own thing going on as well and holds or gets hold of several keys Takeshi needs to solve his own mystery. Poe (Chris Conner), the hotel owner AI who models himself after Edgar Allan Poe, is honestly one of the best things about the series as a whole (he appears in season 2 too!), and you can’t help but take offense when people don’t treat him respectfully just because he’s an AI. He feels more than the Meths do anyway. And he also has loads of cool guns he protects Takeshi with, so there’s that. James Purefoy is perfect as Laurens Bancroft, as he gives off the right amount of “rich asshole” vibe while also being incredibly charming and captivating. He’s a horrible person, does disgusting things, but boy is he interesting to watch.
7. The story progression is fantastic. A small enough first challenge (solving the murder) turns into a full-blown mystery as Takeshi slowly uncovers the truth and exposes the conspiracy surrounding Bancroft’s death. Things which might have seemed unrelated before (like Kristin’s case) tie in nicely with the main story, and the conflict just grows bigger and bigger until it explodes. Although it does lose the noir vibe from the beginning, it’s a logical progression to the story, and the personal stakes involved are enough to keep you engaged and keep the action as dynamic as possible.
8. The truth. This ties into theme really, and I did say this before, but it’s so much more intense when you watch this and realize it’s not that far from the truth. Given these possibilities and circumstances, people would really act this way. Societal structure would really be this way. It gives you a certain bitter, fearful feeling when it shows you the extent human nature will go to, which makes it that much more memorable to me.
9. The surprises. Imagine all the things you can do with action scenes and suspense scenes when your characters aren’t tied to their physical body. Gruesome fights, surprise inhabitants of familiar sleeves, body upgrades, Altered Carbon has it all.
10. Originality. This concept, done in this way, felt incredibly original to me. Perhaps the idea itself has been put out there before, but the execution and the emotions behind Altered Carbon are one of a kind.
TL;DR: Altered Carbon is a genius piece of media that is easily accessible on Netflix for all of you who want a dose of a future that is eerily evocative of the present. It’s got kick-ass visuals, kick-ass characters, and a really interesting noir-esque murder mystery at its center. It’s one of the best Netflix originals out there, and I don’t say this lightly. Give it a try, you’ll be hooked before you know it!
As always, thank you for reading and see you next week!