First off, let’s get one thing straight: Altered Carbon, Netflix’s new series based on Richard Morgan’s science fiction novel of the same name, is not an easy watch. Casual streamers in search of a light fix won’t find it here. Throughout its 10-episode run, pertinent existential questions are tossed around like grenades, exploding into a complex storyline about mankind’s relationship with technology that requires laser-precise attention to detail from the viewer.
But it’s also fun. And intriguing. And downright sexy.
It’s a hardcore cyberpunk adventure that throws multiple elements into a futuristic cauldron—the result is an addictive soup of awesomeness that viewers need to commit to in order to come out of the experience feeling rewarded.
It tells the story of Takeshi Kovacs (played in the present by Joel Kinnaman and in the past by Will Yun Lee), a mysterious former rebel who wakes up 250 years into the future in a new body, a time when immortality is a possibility thanks to the invention of a tech called stacks, miniature discs capable of carrying a human’s consciousness which are used to power clones of the human body known as sleeves. Kovacs is spun back to life to solve the mystery behind the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a wealthy man (with a lot of haters) who can afford the price of eternity. In his quest to find the murderer, he meets Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a tough-as-nails police officer who is hiding a few secrets of her own. And together they dive into a sea of conspiracy theories, crooked cops, and deceit.
A mixture of sci-fi action, neo-noir, and a tinge of romance, Altered Carbon is a heady trip down the rabbit-hole, where no one is who they seem and trust is as fleeting as digital data.
During a roundtable interview at the show’s press conference in Seoul, South Korea, show creator Laeta Kalogridis stressed the fact that one of its central themes revolves around “the widening gap between those who have and those who don’t, and what I regard as the corrosive quality of that.” In the universe of Altered Carbon, much like real life, the filthy rich—who live high above the clouds, unreachable and untouchable and godlike—exploit the gift of immortality while the poor are left needing and wanting and begging for a better quality of living. This is made even more evident through the setting: street corners filled with bizarre whorehouses, hotels being run by artificial intelligence, and a dark city littered with all sorts of criminals.
For lead actor Joel Kinnaman, one of the reasons he was excited to jump onboard the project was because of the social commentary and the warning signs that the show held up for the audience. “I mean, as we speak, the rich are already becoming a different species,” he explained, an allusion of course to how the reality in the show is not far from what’s already taking place. “[Technology like this] is going to be devastating for society as a whole. In Altered Carbon, we show what that would look like. We discuss very basic human themes. It’s just that they take a completely different, futuristic turn.”
In this project, Kinnaman finally unleashes his Hollywood leading man potential. He has always proven to be a scene-stealing character actor and it’s time for him to duke it out on the frontlines. He’s like a more rock and roll Alexander Skarsgård (they’re both Swedish, after all), only more accessible because of his warm onscreen presence. One need not look too far—his role as Will Conway on House of Cards, the poster boy for that grating sense of all-American patriotism trying to unseat the prez, was a nuanced display of emotional intelligence. And in Carbon, he once again taps into both his physicality and innate magnetism to deliver a captivating performance.
Being surrounded by beautiful, talented actresses only bolsters Kinnaman’s scenes. Martha Higareda, Dichen Lachman, and Renee Elise Goldsberry practically dance circles around the men on this show, showing them up completely with characters that are simultaneously villainous, rebellious, vulgar and vulnerable. It’s a refreshing quality to witness in this particular genre.
Science fiction is, of course, notorious for being speculative. Prophetic, even. It has built its reputation on giving its fans the ability to time travel, expanding the limits of what we know by building plausible alternate realities that are dystopic, horrific, and sometimes, all too familiar. Altered Carbon pulls from SF greats like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and William Gibson, but it's also a fine addition to the canon because of the modern voice it imbues themes which have been expounded on by many an author and filmmaker.
But the most important query it elicits when one chips away at the high-octane fight sequences, graphic violence, and stellar production design is: “How would humans act if death was no consequence?”
“I think, at first, we’re so tempted by the idea of living longer,” Kinnaman said as his eyebrows met and his tone took a more serious turn. “A lot of our fears are connected to death. What the show also says is that the essence of life and the beauty of being alive is that we’re going to die—it’s so connected to our mortality.”
Kalogridis added that there are moral repercussions for having a technology like this exist, which Silicon Valley moguls are already trying to develop. In her humble opinion, corruption of the human soul and psyche are inevitable if an individual is given too much time on this planet.
“I think it’s a very, very bad thing for anyone to live forever,” she explained, “because ultimately, it’s the greatest safeguard we’ve been given against the worst parts of ourselves. It’s the balance—the Yin and Yang balance. It’s one of the greatest wisdoms to ever exist. There is no life if there is no death.”
And the genius behind a show like Altered Carbon is that it recognizes this dichotomy and uploads it into the pop culture consciousness.
Altered Carbon premieres on February 2, 2018 on Netflix