Greetings from the Edge!
This week on the Edge, we’ll be taking a step into the small screen with an overview of the Netflix original series Altered Carbon. After a season of cyberpunk and sci-fi disappointments ( I’m looking at you, Blade Runner 2049 ), can Altered Carbon pull off a win for both science fiction and drama fans, or just add to the growing list of mediocre and failed sci-fi re-treads?
Starring Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee as Takeshi Kovacs, our anti-hero protagonist and viewport into the strange future of Altered Carbon, Martha Higareda as Kristin Ortega, a dedicated police officer in a world of entrenched corruption, James Purefoy as Laurens Bancroft, a Methuselah ( or Meth ), one of the immortal ultra-wealthy who rule the future and who has purchased Kovacs to solve his murder, and Chris Conner as Poe, an A.I. hotel long neglected who has taken an interest in Kovacs and who has chosen to model itself after the seminal American writer of mystery and horror, Edgar Allan Poe.
Altered Carbon takes place in a post-mortality future where death can easily be put off or avoided altogether for those with enough money and influence. Methuselahs ( or Meths ), the ultra-rich and influential, exert an almost Medieval-like cast system on the rest of humanity, ruling like robber barons and feudal lords over a humanity that can never hope to catch up to the immortal rich.
The great secret of the world of Altered Carbon is the “Stack,” a neural-interface recording and sending processor that can store the entirety of a human mind and allow it to survive the death of the body ( or “Sleeve” ) and be rehoused in another “Sleeve” or even be transmitted over almost unlimited distances, allowing your consciousness to be needle-casted to a “Sleeve” on another planet or across the galaxy.
When humanity has become divorced from the cycle of life and death, finally succeeding in completely separating from nature itself, is it still humanity or has it become something more? Or perhaps less.
Altered Carbon follows the journey of Takeshi Kovacs, the last “Envoy” soldier trained to be able to blend in to any society and use a “Sleeve” as a weapon, not merely as a vessel, taught to hone his intuition to a razor’s edge and miss no detail no matter how seemingly insignificant. Kovacs’s stack has been in storage for over two centuries in punishment for taking part in a rebellion that sought to topple the power of the “Meths.”
Now Kovacs has been “Re-Sleeved” by Laurens Bancroft to solve that powerful Meth’s murder and is given the choice between being Bancroft’s property until he can solve the mystery or be returned to a never-ending sentence of cold storage, never truly alive or yet allowed to die.
Can Kovacs navigate a world that has passed him by more than a dozen generations, can he overcome the ghosts that haunt him still, or will his fragmented consciousness destroy him before a host of enemies new and old have a chance to? In a world made all the more glittering for its essential darkness, can he solve the murder of an immortal and dare to live when final true death stalks him from all sides?
Let me just say that both the special effects and set design of Altered Carbon is the best I’ve ever seen in a science fiction series. The designers have worked within their limitations to create not a seamless world but a world that is believably lived in. Not a spotless utopia nor an featureless urban sprawl, but a world large enough to hold both and more.
Altered Carbon presents us with a beautifully dirty and lived-in world without giving in to the modern science fiction trope of making the future so filthy and dystopian that you can’t really imagine people choosing to live in it. Likewise, the rarefied world of the ultra-wealthy “Meths” still feels like something actual humans would live in and not the kind of sterile, almost hospital-like environments that pervade so much of high budget science fiction.
It’s nice to see that as much work was put into the fashion and costuming of Altered Carbon as the special effects: different enough to be unlike our norm, but the clothing feels like something people might actually choose to wear and does nothing to take you out of the story. It fits perfectly into the cyberpunk/neo-noir world of Altered Carbon.
I also want to applaud their general restraint in the use of CGI. While it’s all around in Altered Carbon, it stays, for the most part, in the background, reinforcing the world rather than vying for your attention to the detriment of the story as a whole. A deft touch and a light one, if only more series realized that special effects are there to enhance the story and not to supplant it.
Altered Carbon is a cyberpunk/neo-noir science fiction series exploring what humanity might become once it has been set free from the shackles of mortality. It’s in my opinion a more worthy successor to the original Blade Runner than the lackluster and full of itself ( if not at least beautiful ) sequel we were saddled with last year.
Do be aware, though, that Altered Carbon deals with elements of class and wealth disparity, sexuality, identity, and violence in a frank and confrontational manner. However, it doesn’t ever try to make up your mind for you: It has enough respect for the viewer that it doesn’t try to spoon feed a single interpretation or beat you over the head with its “Message” which, in these divisive days, seems like a luxury that I, for one, appreciate.
Altered Carbon has things to say and a story to tell, and it invites you along on the trip without judgment or obligation ( either to you or from you ).
Altered Carbon has action aplenty without being an action series, a speculative look into the future without being portentous, a philosophical bend without being navel gazing or obtuse, and is darkly humorous without giving way to self-parody or the fear of being taken seriously.
It is in my opinion a rare beast indeed, the kind that we are only privileged to get to see with scare regularity. If you are a fan of the writing of Williams Gibson ( Neuromancer, Burning Chrome, Mona Lisa Overdrive ) or of movies like the original Blade Runner, then Altered Carbon is more than worth your time. In fact, I’ll be willing to say that if you give Altered Carbon a try, you’ll end up viewing it multiple times to pick up on all the hints and subtleties that you missed on your first viewing.
For everyone else, I still give Altered Carbon my highest recommendation. It is the best science fiction series I have seen in ten years, possibly more. I’d personally give it the edge over Black Mirror because, while Black Mirror is an excellent anthology series, Altered Carbon maintains a cohesive narrative throughout its story and never feels like your time is wasted or that you’re being fobbed off with filler or mindless action.
I can’t wait to see what the team behind Altered Carbon has in store for us next because they have set themselves a mighty task if they seek to top it.
Nerdy Speculation Corner: Warning, may contain both spoilers and dangerous amounts of geekery!
I have to say that Altered Carbon has a lot of nudity, I mean A LOT. To its credit, it’s very egalitarian and the men are on display if not as much as the women, then an appreciable amount and a lot of the nudity is refreshingly non-sexual and not simply there for the male gaze. That’s there, too, and if that’s the kind of thing that makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably better that you know that going in.
Also, violence is not bloodless in Altered Carbon. It tends to be of a more fast and direct bend than the overly produced Hollywood slaughter that most have grown so used to. This is not to say that the action in Altered Carbon is not beautifully done ( which it is ), but if you’re expecting the kind of Star Trek “phaser hits target and they fall over or disappear” battles you see in most science fiction series, Altered Carbon may be a bit of a surprise.
I wish I could go into more detail about the minutiae of Altered Carbon, but even the little things end up being significant so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. SO FRUSTRATING… but so good!
Next week we’ll have more movie mayhem, film fanaticism, and cinematic sarcasm here on the Edge!