What if you could live forever? Or more specifically, what if you could upload your consciousness into any body that you want, no matter how many times you die? These are the intricate questions that are asked, subliminally and not, in Laeta Kalogridis’ sordid and gritty cyberpunk world of “Altered Carbon,” where anger, greed, violence and sex seem to run rampant.
“Altered Carbon” is a 10-episode series on Netflix based on a novel written by Richard K. Morgan. Like the novel, the show follows the story of Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a haunted man who has awoken in the skin of an unfamiliar body after 250 years of being “on ice.” Takeshi, who was once labeled as a terrorist and murderer by the galactic government, is tasked with finding the killer of the rich and powerful Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) in order to be pardoned for his past crimes and rebel activity.
At its core, Kalogridis’ show is a murder mystery that is more elaborate than your typical TV cop/crime drama. In a futuristic world where death is no longer the final stop, the nature of policing and crime fighting is fundamentally different than what we know. For the most part, this series handles these unique concepts fairly well, exploring many of the complex aspects of a world where people can keep on living, even if their earthly bodies die. In Altered Carbon’s universe, bodies are no longer considered sacred, and instead are referred to as “sleeves,” as easily disposed of as a snake’s skin.
Unfortunately, the show suffers from many of the tropes and stereotypical practices, characters and plot devices that go into making other cop dramas. The show also borrows heavily from other works of science fiction when it comes to building its world, notably the “Blade Runner” movies. For all its flying cars, bright and colorful neon lighting, gigantic metropolises, and a gritty futuristic atmosphere of rain, trash, and decadence, “Altered Carbon” certainly takes its visual cues from other sci-fi franchises.
One fascinating and unique aspect of the show is the portrayal of technology that allows the storage of human consciousness on little devices called “stacks,” which can be found in the back of everyone’s neck. Though the body may die, successful retrieval of a stack can guarantee continued living, albeit in a different body.
In a world where you have the option to come back after death, religion remains alive, especially for the “neo-Catholics.” The religious group is often portrayed in a negative and almost uncomfortable light, as rioters and protestors of the stack technology. Many of the neo-Catholics that are filmed in the dirty streets of Bay City act roughly, on the brink of violence even. Many roar at the camera with skeletal faces painted on their own. Fortunately, Officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) has a neo-Catholic family that is portrayed in a warm and friendly light.
My favorite performance of the show was Chris Conner’s, who played Poe, a creative and often humorous reimagining of the poet Edgar Allen Poe. Conner’s acting was a delight to hear and watch, as his charm and wit easily stole every scene right from under the noses of bigger and often duller characters, including the show’s hero, Takeshi.
Though Kinnaman’s acting was convincing, and sometimes moving, I found his character to be more and more bland as I pushed on to the finale. Initially, Takeshi appears to have a complex depth to him, a cynical jerk haunted by the ghosts of the past. But as the show chugged along, and as his past actions and relationships emerged through flashbacks, Takeshi’s actions became more and more predictable, the reluctant hero with a kind and loving heart encased in a tough, rogue-like exterior.
Overall, “Altered Carbon” is just barely able to distinguish itself from among other sci-fi franchises. While delivering fascinating concepts and convincing world building, “Altered Carbon” is a victim of sub-par writing, especially when it comes to dialogue and the last quarter of the show’s plot.