There are times when it’s hard to believe that Altered Carbon is a TV show. On very rare occasions, it’s even harder to believe it’s a Netflix Original. From the incredibly realised world of Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name to the excellent performances – and all the way to the fantastic action sequences – Altered Carbon is cyberpunk nirvana to rival Hollywood blockbusters. However, there are also occasions where the fact that this is a science fiction show comes crashing through the backdrop like a drunk dame in a panto who’s had enough. While for the most part the script is passable, there are some lines that would make the CW’s toes curl and the spaceship and hover cars, whose exteriors are only ever rendered in CG, would be right at home on Windows 98.
Altered Carbon is set in a far-flung future that’s as identically dystopian as Bladerunner’s, the key difference being the human consciousness can now be confined to a high-tech, puck-like object called a Stack. The proliferation of these devices across society has allowed humans to change bodies, or Sleeves, essentially making them immortal.
How did this happen? Where did this technology come from? It’s not something that Altered Carbon is desperate to divulge, but what the dialogue is very good at is conveying little details about its universe. We never get the full picture, but there’s enough in the periphery to make the world feel real and fleshed-out. What a world it is too: there are hand guns that sound like howitzers, augmented robot limbs, cloning, hacking, ninjas, gangsters, aristocrats, sentient AIs, virtual reality and anything else that might be associated when you google the term ‘cyberpunk’.
The story follows Joel Kinnerman’s (Robocop, House of Cards) Takeshi Kovacs, who awakens to his re-skinned life following a prison sentence of more than 200 years. From the get-go, this is an excellent plot device, because it enables Kovacs to be the vessel with which the audience can explore this new world. Following his release from prison, Kovacks is quickly embroiled in a murder case where his client is the victim. The client in question? Laurens Bancroft, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. Played by the delightful James Purefoy, Bancroft is part of a class of aristocrats referred to as Meths – shorthand for Methuselah, a character from Hebrew mythology deemed to be the oldest person in the world. In Bancroft’s case, his long life is owed to the fact he has re-sleeved for hundreds of years, thanks to his vast wealth and resources.
It becomes Kovack’s job to determine who murdered one of Bancroft’s Sleeves and what follows is a blockbuster, if mildly unoriginal, noir that has all the intrigue, action and sizzle you could want. There’s a kinetic action scene in nearly every episode, and scenes jump from place to place, and character to character, at a bold pace that virtually removes the risk of a mid-season lull. All the characters have interesting arcs; not just Kovacks, but most of the other characters all go through some pretty dark journeys. That is the tone with Altered Carbon: people are murdered, tortured, traumatised and beaten. This serves to underline a key theme: in a world where the moral fabric of society is no longer underpinned by a fear for physical well-being, what happens to the soul of humanity?
In our world, identity has become entirely central to our behaviour. If we’re not promoting our own personal brand through social media, we’re doing something wrong. In the world of Altered Carbon, physical appearance and qualifiers such as gender are no longer relevant, making the inner self – or soul, for want of a better word – all the more prescient.
In a murder mystery, the concept of a character being entirely converse to their physical form is a wonderful plot device that is played with excellently. What this requires from the performers in Altered Carbon is a real range of expression and while, at times, the script doesn’t support this, all of the actors here show excellent range. Often, a character will be someone who has lived in several different bodies and the performances demonstrate this competently.
It’s a bit of a shame that a show that is so appreciative of sci-fi hallmarks, such as Bladerunner, Firefly, Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop, doesn’t attempt to emulate the scores of these genre titans. This would be fine if Altered Carbon’s soundtrack were original or bucked a trend, but there are moments that need some blues softly framing the scene, there are others where an atypical sweeping synth would work nicely. Instead, we’re treated to this odd mix of orchestral bits with some odd indie pop for seasoning. It feel like an after-thought and is most certainly a missed opportunity.
Thankfully, the way Altered Carbon is shot and the way the action is framed serves to fill the gap that’s left by the lacklustre soundtrack. There are great sweeping shots juxtaposed with tight, almost claustrophobic framing that add to the tension. The lighting is all neons and lens flair – light creeps into the shadows of the interiors, which range from dingy, Art Deco pastiches to clinical, pristine spaces. Even the way virtual reality is displayed isn’t heavy handed; it’s mostly accomplished with clever camera work, rather than excessive visual effects.
Ultimately, Altered Carbon is a very human story that examines the nature of identity and the human soul. The futuristic setting serves as a backdrop for some genuinely interesting, fleshed-out characters. By the final episode, it’s hard to say whether this is a world that’s worth revisiting or whether the closing notes give enough catharsis for Altered Carbon to be a one-season act. But if Netflix produces another run, and it’s done with the same care and attention, it’d be great to see the world of Altered Carbon booted up in a new Sleeve.
Altered Carbon is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.