TV: Altered Carbon (Season 1)

A sumptuous science fiction series with thought-provoking worldbuilding, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan, is densely packed, intense, and thoroughly engrossing. It also has a transgressive, exploitative sensibility that makes Game of Thrones look positively wholesome. That said, it’s certainly worth watching.

After two hundred fifty years, notorious terrorist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is awakened, his long-preserved consciousness downloaded into a new, military-grade body or “sleeve.” Indeed, in this future world, science has more or less converted the human mind into so much software that can be regularly backed up and downloaded into new, cloned bodies. This technology is central to the mystery of an attack on Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the Interstellar Protectorate’s richest, most powerful people. Bancroft has awakened Kovacs to investigate the murder of one of his clones, which he believes coincided with a simultaneous attempt to destroy his backups, leading to “real death.” The police—represented by fiery lieutenant Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda)—have deemed Bancroft’s clone death a suicide, but Bancroft refuses to accept that. Kovacs, a former Envoy opposed to the Protectorate’s rule, has next to no interest in solving Bancroft’s problems, except inasmuch as it will purchase his freedom. He sets up shop in a creepy old hotel called the Raven, run by an artificial intelligence named Poe (Chris Conner), and begins digging into the case. But solving a murder is even more complex than usual in a society where physical death is not only commonplace, but practically a recreational activity. Each revelation introduces new complications and brings new people into Kovacs’ life, challenging his cold-hearted, apathetic view of things. In the end, solving the mystery of Bancroft’s death may also solve the mystery of Kovacs’ life.

The primary asset of Altered Carbon may be its thorough worldbuilding, which is colorful and complex, presenting a truly disorienting future that descends logically from the resurrection technology central to its plot. The disposability of the flesh and the near-certitude of being able to “re-sleeve your stack” is effectively baked into the human attitudes of this world, leading to convincingly cavalier attitudes about “organic damage” and death, as well as changed perspectives about the body, the mind, and human identity. The wealthy, for example, happily pay to watch a married couple engage in professional zero-G combat to the death; after all, it’s a good way for them to upgrade their sleeves. Even more memorably, Ortega feels no compunction about re-sleeving her dead grandmother in the body of a “borrowed” convinct in order to bring her to a family dinner. The series is rife with these little touches, which paint a picture of an extremely altered cultural mindset, which also factors into class, religious, and legal matters. It’s all quite adroitly integrated, both informing the background and feeding into the plot—which presents a satisfyingly torturous mystery.

It appears not to be lost on Morgan that the development of these scientific and technological advances might have a detrimental effect on moral attitudes. Indeed, a major part of the plot backstory revolves around class inequality, and the decadent uses to which these advances might be applied, especially by the obscenely wealthy. Altered Carbon leans into this decadence with abandon, painting a picture of a depraved and sordid world that verges, at times, on misery porn. The characters are understandably cavalier about the human body; the plot requires this attitude of the actors, as well. The series is rife with gratuitous nudity, to go along with gratuitous violence. But is it gratuitous? That’s a weirdly conflicting question, because the overall effect is profound; you can’t say all that flesh and blood doesn’t all contribute to the worldbuilding Big Picture. But it’s also performing that age-old Hollywood trick of critiquing the subject matter in which it’s also exploitatively wallowing.

Undeniably, though, Altered Carbon is visually stunning, its CGI aesthetic an eye-popping blend of Blade Runner future noir and colorful Luc Besson-like cartoonishness. It ricochets from one memorable sequence to the next, from breathtaking vistas to gritty dark alleys, all glimpsed through the viewpoints of an accomplished and attractive cast. The chiseled Kinnaman looks like he was generated by a video game character creator; he turns out to be a quite capable leading man. He’s matched stride for stride by Higareda’s fiery, charismatic counterpoint. Conner is delightful as the quirky, Edgar Allan Poe-based hotelier, and the cast is fleshed out effectively by the likes of Purefoy, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Trieu Tran, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, among others.

Altered Carbon presents a rather bleak, dystopian vision, and is not a particularly life-affirming message about humanity. You may feel like you need to hose off after watching it. But as science fiction TV goes, it’s riveting, conceptually robust, and cinematically unforgettable.


Scroll to Top