Imagine if the cinematography of Blade Runner had a baby with almost every cyberpunk form of entertainment in which the settings are sprawling cityscapes where it only ever seems to rain. Imagine a world where the rich are considered untouchable gods, and the poor are nothing more than expendable, hollow shells of people. Imagine a world where death is merely an inconvenience, for those who can afford it. If you can imagine all that, you’re some of the way towards understanding the weird and wonderful world of Altered Carbon.
‘What follows is a mind-bending murder mystery, some exquisitely executed fight scenes, and a killer plot’
Altered Carbon, the latest offering from streaming giant Netflix, is a science-fiction spectacle based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. Joel Kinnaman (House of Cards, Suicide Squad) stars as Takeshi Kovacs, a specially trained soldier designed for killing and destruction, otherwise known as an Envoy. Set in a future where the human consciousness can be digitised and downloaded into human bodies, called “sleeves”, Kovacs is sleeved into a new body, 250 years after his previous death. At the demand of influential aristocrat Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purefoy (The Following, A Knight’s Tale), Kovacs is bought by Bancroft to solve his murder, despite his death already having been ruled a suicide by Lieutenant Kristen Ortega of the local police department. What follows is a mind-bending murder mystery, some exquisitely executed fight scenes, and a killer plot, to make this one of the most binge-worthy shows that Netflix has created in recent years.
Kinnaman’s performance is everything you’d expect from a brooding super soldier in a cyberpunk future, dragged out of death at the behest of a powerful rich man. Garbed in a long dark coat, smoking cigarettes and constantly demonstrating a verbal inability to be anything other than impolite, Kinnaman channels his inner anti-hero, determined to be a lone, destructive wolf. Purefoy brings the gravitas and upper-class snobbery to the role of Laurens Bancroft necessary to make him a believable and keenly dislikeable character, but one we are constantly intrigued by, right up until the show’s explosive conclusion. Martha Higareda portrays fiery Lieutenant Kristen Ortega, never ceasing in her vendetta against the corrupt and the rich, determined to do the right thing.
The show is littered with memorable characters, ranging from the delightfully macabre artificial intelligence Poe (Chris Conner), to the deeply religious and violent Leung (Trieu Tran). Also playing pivotal roles are Renee Elise Goldsberry as the Envoy leader, Quellcrist Falconer, and Dichen Lachman as Kovacs’ sister, Reileen Kawahara. Goldsberry is fierce throughout, inspiring loyalty in her followers and battle-hardened wisdom to her soldiers, though not without a great deal of human emotion, which we see through her interactions with Kovacs.
‘The show does not hesitate in showing the rich and famous as monstrous and immortal gods, with the darkest desires of the flesh.’
The finale of Altered Carbon does more than most shows in terms of answering questions posed throughout the show’s previous nine episodes. Where other shows who are more certain of their fate may opt to leave many questions unanswered, Altered Carbon doesn’t seek to confuse viewers more than it already has. Tying together every loose end, the show does its best to satisfy viewers with ends to every plotline unveiled throughout, and every character getting the end you feel they truly deserve.
Altered Carbon is clear and bold in its decision to make the rich and famous the clear villains of the piece. Whether it be hosting a dinner party where the entertainment is a bloodthirsty fight to the death between husband and wife, or owning establishments to fulfil the most sadistic and revolting of desires, the show does not hesitate in showing the rich and famous as monstrous and immortal gods, with the darkest desires of the flesh. That’s not to say that the poor get off lightly either though. Hotels and establishments controlled by artificial intelligence provide any kind of desires that people wish for, ranging from the brutally violent FightDrome, to the macabre hotel called The Raven, where Kovacs stays and forms a kinship with the AI, Poe. The poor of the city find little fleeting joy in the Japanese-style street food and dark offerings, instead choosing to shoot up in a nearby alleyway, or spend their time in the virtual world, much akin to the virtual reality in present-day Earth.
‘The visuals could hold their own against a Hollywood blockbuster movie adaptation of the show’
Even those viewers who fail to connect with the cast or the premise of the show would find it increasingly hard to argue with the sheer scale and ambition of it. Seemingly sparing no expense, the visuals could hold their own against a Hollywood blockbuster movie adaptation of the show. It’s not something to be streamed on a phone or a tablet. This show craves large-screen viewing, to soak and revel in the neo-noir excess of a city that has been created, almost as an homage to Blade Runner.
The show benefits hugely from being developed into a series instead of a movie though, giving time to flesh out the characters more and allow for intense storytelling as the murder mystery becomes ever entangled in overlapping plots. Nothing feels forced or lost despite the plethora of plotlines to follow though, as everything eventually plays its part in the grand scheme of things.
Altered Carbon is masterful in its building of suspense, only to then shatter it through intricate and exquisite fight sequences, executed with aplomb. Drawing on so many science-fiction predecessors though, one can’t help but wonder if Altered Carbon will eventually find a “sleeve” of its own unique style. Until then, Netflix’s latest offering is bold, brash and utterly brilliant.