Cyberpunk and distopian futures are a favourite setting setting of mine. There is something about how far humanity goes technologically and how it ends up devolving them and bring down society, that I find so interesting. It is a great concept and something that is easily believable, so long as it is done well, as you can see how dependant humans are on technology, that makes it easier to swallow in a setting like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Dread, or The Matrix.
Of course it is a bit of an overused setting, with hover cars and neon lights, the rich 1% living in luxury, whilst the rest of man-kind live in rainy, polluted, noir, overpopulated, bleak looking cities, full of crime, corrupt police, drug abuse, cybernetics, and prostitution. It is an easy back drop to use for a story, but personally, I really don’t mind how many times it is used so long as what is being shown is of a certain level of quality.
Last weekend I watched the Netflix movie; Mute, which is set in this kind of future, but it did not utilise it at all and could have easily been set during any time period. It was a complete waste, but it might have been better if I was not watching something similar at the same time, which was a lot better both in terms of story and quality of the effects.
This was Altered Carbon.
Now Altered Carbon’s setting is one colossal cyberpunk cliché. It has, and makes use of, every single one of the things that I listed above within this genre, but the thing that I liked about it was that it was not attempting to be anything different, or try to hide the fact that it was using standard cyberpunk themes that we have seen many times before.
From the trailer, everyone who saw it said it looked like Blade Runner. And they are right to do so. It really does. It was this that did draw me to it. The show looks fantastic. The visual effects are brilliantly done, the hover cars do not look like poor CGI, the city all around looks believable, and the technology never goes too far and unrealistic, other than the main premise that the entire show is built around, however, this is done perfectly fine as well as being well written, so, as I mentioned earlier about this particularly genre, it works.
The idea of Altered Carbon is that, in the future, hundreds of years in the future, people are able to store their memories/personalities/souls/their very essence, on discs that are inserted into a thing called a “Stack” at the back of the neck in the spine. This is so, if they die, they can be taken out and put into a new body to allow to continue living. If your stack is damaged, or you are shot in the head with an energy weapon (which must somehow fry the stack), then you are dead! For good! Or in Altered Carbon, it is called RDed (real dead).
So people have been living for much much longer than normal, as they have been able to move onto a new body (or possibly a cloned body of your original one – if you are rich enough) and continue living your life.
Of course there is corruption in this system. Rich people are able to pay to kill people, mainly sexually, but never damaging their stack, just the person’s body (called a ‘sleeve’) and not get into any trouble as the deceased can be put into a new sleeve. But naturally this makes these billionaires lustful sadists, looking to take their desires further and further.
Meanwhile, if you are killed (without your stack getting damaged), and you are not rich enough to pay for a new one, you might just be shoved into any old person. As, in Altered Carbon, we see people put into ex-criminals, children’s stacks being put into older people, and sometimes people being put into the completely different sex! So the whole thing can be a horrible mess.
It is an interesting concept and one that is written well and utilised to its fullest potential, giving that the story focuses solely around this concept of ‘the true ugliness of immortality’, with every episode somehow tying into the idea.
Personally, I really liked Altered Carbon for this reason. When you do realise that the show is centred around the idea that immortality is not as pretty as it might first be perceived.
The actual story of the show is centred around the protagonist; Takeshi Kovacs, who is a former Envoy (kind of like a radical resistance movement who are also mercenaries? – I want to say), who has been ‘on ice’ for 250 years (meaning he did not have a sleeve for that entire time) before being inserted into a new sleeve (played, at least the sleeved version of him, by Joel Kinnaman – House of Cards) by one of the wealthiest people in the settled worlds (oh yeah, humanity has spread out onto other planets and stuff, but it doesn’t really come up much in the main story of the show, so it is not overly worth mentioning), to solve a murder.
The twist on the murder is that it is the billionaire’s OWN murder! He was shot and killed in the stack in his own office, completely locked away from the rest of the world atop his manor, floating high above the clouds of pollution and the rest of the ‘grounders’, who are perceived as low class people. Thankfully, the billionaire; Laurens Bancroft (played by James Purefoy) is rich enough to have his own personality/soul/etc saved as a backup on the cloud. Unfortunately his last backup was 48 hours before the murder, so he has no idea who killed him or why. Everyone suspects that he killed himself, but he is sure that he did not, and brings this random mercenary out of storage to solve the case.
He gives him a blank cheque to get the job done, which Kovacs uses to the fullest. As we see the ‘hero’ of the story banging prostitutes, taking drugs, drinking excessively, and everything else he can do to milk his new life.
If it sounds like the protagonist is not an overly good person, it is because he isn’t. He is “badass”, sleeping with whoever he wants (which is a constant thing in the show), and killing whoever he pleases, saying how much he doesn’t need anyone. He really does not give two shits about Bancroft and his death, he is more interested in getting the money so he can go off and start a new life away from everything.
A lot of the show deals with Kovacs’ past. We learn his life as an Envoy, his trouble childhood, his relationship with his sister, and everything in-between. In fact two episodes (out of the 10) are solely devoted to different parts of his history. He is, at times, a pretty one dimensional character, who has a surprising deep and interesting past. Kovacs does blossom more as the show goes on, which is what brings me to my next point…
The first episode is a little hit and miss because of a lot of questions in the details. Why did the guy bring some random freedom fighter out to solve his murder? Surely a former police detective would be better? But as the show goes on, you do learn as to the reason why, and it makes perfect sense, given how the story goes, which of course I cannot go into for spoiler purposes.
This is one of the things about Altered Carbon that would put people off. It is a grower. You are not sure by the show by the first few episodes. Out of the first three, I think one of them is descent, but the rest are interesting in the fact that they add depth to the setting, but you are still not sure of it. It is not until more of the story is unveiled and things start to make sense, that you actually do get into it.
Halfway through, I found it a bit of a chore, but I am really glad that I stuck with it to the end, as, like Kovacs himself, the show really does come into its own and I found myself really interested in watching the next episode.
This is also the same with a lot of the side characters seem a bit irrelevant, such as the former soldier and father whose girl’s stack who was murdered and her stack was shell shocked because of it, leaving her trapped inside of it, pretty much insane, and unable to be added into a new sleeve. He is hired by Kovacs to join him on his little mission, but I really felt he was unnecessary. However, as the show got towards the last few episodes, he did become important (along with another character who joins them related to this one, but I will not spoil it) and I couldn’t imagine how the show could have continued without him.
A lot of Altered Carbon is like this; a slow burn with a good payoff in the final few episodes. The murder case story does fizzle out from time to time, but it thankfully cames back in a bit and interesting way at the end.
One of the other main characters, who I have not yet mentioned, the Spanish police detective (who is investigating the murder, Kovacs’ return, and a number of other things that are linked to Bancroft – pretty much to the point of having a vendetta out for him) is a very one dimensional character who appears to only have “Angry” and “Spanish” next to her personality stats. While she is important to the story, I did feel a bit annoyed when the story switched over to her. She did have an interesting character arc overall, but I felt that she could have been a little more likeable.
These are just nit-picky issues I had with the show, if I am honest.
If you have heard lots of good things about this program, look at the person who said it. Do they like slow motion gun fights, samurai swords, and the type of action that teenagers like? Because that might be your answer.
I really felt that Altered Carbon was written by me when I was 16. I found that everything in the show is all things that I loved when I was an adolescent, such as Katanas and Edgar Allan Poe’s; The Raven (which is funnily enough featured quite a bit in one of the side characters and Kovacs’ main base of operations). And while it is not a particularly bad thing, as I have gotten older, I feel that this sort of stuff is mainly just eye candy (with the exception of the Raven, which is more trying to be pretentious but really it is a cliché and overused concept – I mean I wrote a zombie short story that was a remake of the famous Poe poem).
It is not enough to ruin the show, not at all. As I have said a lot of people love Altered Carbon for this reason, but I did find myself eye-rolling from time to time. It might just have something to do with how old and miserable I have become in my old age, so you might actually really enjoy the show for this type of stuff it throws in.
Overall, if you like the cyberpunk genre, or any kind of science fiction, you will instantly feel at home with this show. I will say that it does take a bit of momentum to get going, in a similar to West World, in the sense that the first episode gives you exactly what you wanted, then the next two are a bit slower and do more world building, which has the potential to put people off, but give it a chance and you will find something in Altered Carbon that you will enjoy.
It is not the most original creation (other than the basic premise) and there are times that you feel the writers added something cool in, purely because they felt it was “sick/kewl/wicked/dank/etc”, as well as feeling it might have been written entirely by teenagers, but there is still a deep and meaningful story to be told here revolving around the negative repercussions of immortality.
When it was all said and done, I really enjoyed Altered Carbon and I am hoping that Netflix make another season.