Review: Altered Carbon | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Altered Carbon

Gaming Editor Roshni Patel uploads her thoughts on the latest Netflix sci-fi, the neo-noir Altered Carbon

Since the release of Blade Runner 2049, it seems the cyberpunk genre is coming to the forefront once again, with the increase in techno-noir once again making an attempt to flood the media, as even CD Projekt Red’s newest game, Cyberpunk 2077, rears its head to show signs of life in this golden age of neo-noir. Netflix’s latest original, Altered Carbon, is no different, based on a book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, it's a show only made possible by the lingering interest in the cyberpunk dystopia, which was re-awoken by big budget films like Blade Runner 2049 and Valerian. Produced and written for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator: Genisys, Shutter Island), the show is a refreshing change from some of the many post apocalyptic shows popular today.

There’s a disparity caused by wealth, with the poorest citizens doomed to experience ‘real death’, while everyone else get whatever sleeve they can afford
Set thousands of years in the future, in the 24th century, where finally you can put your mind and memories into a computer chip and live forever. Inserted into your spine like a spinal disk, these ‘stacks’ allow you to be downloaded and transferred between bodies, to shed bodies, or ‘sleeves’, like snakes shed their skins. Of course there’s a disparity caused by wealth, with the poorest citizens doomed to experience ‘real death’, while everyone else get whatever sleeve they can afford, which for the rich often means exact clones of themselves. They can swap between them at will, as they store their consciousnesses on online servers, to be downloaded into any of their clones in the across the galaxy. It's upon this concept that the mystery is built upon, with rich immortal, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, The Following) hiring our protagonist to investigate his own murder. Famed for his ability to see the details and his resilience in any situation, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman, Robocop) is the man that Bancroft wakes from a 250 year prison sentence in storage, tasking him to find the truth, in what looks to be an obvious case and forcing him to navigate the world of the ultra rich, while leveraging the resources of the shadows below, to piece together what actually happened. Dogged by the police department’s finest, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda, Street Kings), whose clear distaste of Kovacs seems to suggest a determination to put him back on ice and out of trouble. Aided by an AI hotelier, who goes by Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner, American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson), who has been likened to a possessive crazy girlfriend, as well as others he befriends along the way, Kovacs begins to unravel the mysteries of his past, his present and finds out there’s more to the case than Bancroft’s murder.

On the ground the colour palette does a 180, creating the neo-noir setting that we’re familiar with from previous cyberpunk films and media
Brilliantly led by Kinnaman who’s tough, caustic renegade, Takeshi Kovacs, perfectly balances his struggles against his past and his attempt to get through the present, feigning nonchalance well, as others try to catch him caring. Complemented and challenged by Higareda’s strong willed Ortega, the plot progresses at a fair rate, with each episode ending leaving you hungry for the next one, which Netflix helpfully offers to play after a five second breather. The show is very clear with it's distinctions between the unbelievably wealthy in the ‘Aerium’ above the clouds and those on the ground, or Bay City, a dystopian San Francisco. From their clothing to their posture and lack of emotion, the Meths; in reference to the Biblical figure Methuselah, show their age, as their long life spans have burnt away the fragility of life, leaving cruel, hedonistic and often depraved monsters behind. In contrast, on the ground the colour palette does a 180, creating the neo-noir setting that we’re familiar with from previous cyberpunk films and media, where the setting looks almost like a darkened present day, except for the harsh glow of a thousand neon lights and the prominence of technology, which eludes to a slower and more expensive advancement into the future.
While the lead characters are fairly well fleshed out, and the world and premise quite intricately woven, the show is not without its flaws. Despite showrunner Kalogridis’ best efforts, Altered Carbon did often fall into the trap of focusing solely on it's main cast and forgetting to fully flesh out the world around them, missing easy opportunities to pose moral questions upon the viewer about the ethics of this near immortal future. For instance, early on in the first episode, we see a 7 year old’s ‘stack’ transferred into the body of an older woman and hear the anguished cries of her parents at her callous treatment, knowing they’d never have the money to resleeve her in a body fitting of her age. While this might seem intriguing, Altered Carbon never spends more than a moment on it, as Kovacs passes on by, the moment forgotten. A similar issue is brought up later when the show mentions cross-sleeving, the practice of putting a consciousness within the body of the opposite gender, but again, it's never more than a  needlessly explained concept. Ethics are continually abused and ignored as the story goes on, with the rules behind ‘religious coding’, that supposedly prevents a ‘stack’ to be revived should the host body die, often bent and made vague for the sake of the plot, allowing characters to easily denounce their coding or even circumvent it later; leaving the viewer confused as to what was real and not.

Netflix have thankfully ended the series well, giving us a measure of closure in the finale
However, if you liked Blade Runner and similar cyberpunk neo-noir films or shows, Altered Carbon is sure to hit the spot. While not perfect and no Blade Runner sequel, the show brings the genre to life on the small screen, across ten easily binged episodes. Already set to be renewed for season 2, and likely to follow the second book in Morgan’s trilogy, rumours are already surfacing as to which of the cast might return. But should Altered Carbon not return, Netflix have thankfully ended the series well, giving us a measure of closure in the finale, which is a refreshing surprise in an era where every show tries to live as long as the money will last, with each season often worse than the one before. With it's well choreographed action, big budget effects and subtle and often sarcastic humour, this show is in my opinion a must watch.

Redbrick Gaming Editor, who also occasionally dabbles in the dark arts of other sections. Graduating July 2018 (@roshofalltrades)



Published

6th March 2018 at 9:00 am



Images from

Netflix, Gamespot and Netflix



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