Netflix TV series review: 'Altered Carbon'

‘ALTERED Carbon’ is called a cyberpunk TV series and is based on the 2002 novel by Richard Morgan. It’s said to be one of the most expensive shows financed by Netflix and you can really see the budget must be big with the huge sets they built and the spectacular CGI they used for the show. 

Cyberpunk refers to that kind of science fiction set in the future that has cybernetics, artificial intelligence and other advanced technological and scientific achievements that we see being liberally used in this series that has 10 episodes. 

The lead role is played by Joel Kinnaman, who we honestly think is one of the finest actors working in Hollywood today. We’ve seen him in the movie “The Informer” and in such TV shows as “The Killing” and “Hanna” and he’s always extremely good. 

He plays Takeshi Kovacs, an Asian fighter who is the only surviving member of the Envoys, a group of rebel soldiers who staged an uprising hundreds of years ago. The story is now set 500 years in the future. If you are rich, you can prevent death with the invention of “stacks”, hard drives that store everything in a person’s brain. 

It is transferable to a new body and planted at the back of the neck. Your old body can now be disposable. It can die but your stack can be transferred to another vacant body, which is called “sleeve”, so the stack is a form of immortality. The kind of sleeve you get all depends on how wealthy you are and how much you can afford. 

It sometimes happens that the mind of a woman is transferred to the body a man, which can cause complications. Takeshi’s stack has been preserved and is now transferred to the body of a Caucasian man (Kinnaman). He is hired by a very rich magnate, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), to investigate Bancroft’s own murder, which is believed to be self inflicted. 

The series is set in a futuristic metropolis known as the Bay City and evokes the milieu of the classic scifi film, “Blade Runner”, with its neon lights and rain-swept surroundings. The wealth gap in society is very wide as it’s now divided into the very poor, called Grounders, and the very wealthy, the Meth, so called because like Methuselah, they can live to be very very old, choose young new sleeves and even make clones of themselves, simply because they’re immensely wealthy. The Grounders live in hovels while the Meths live in plush sky scrapers that tower high above the ground.

As Takeshi investigates Bancroft’s murder, we are introduced to other futuristic concepts, like torture chambers done through virtual reality and AI (artificial intelligence) so widely used here that there is even an AI hotel that is reminiscent of the hotel which is a refuge for criminals in the “John Wick” series. There’s a wealth of information given as the show establishes it own mythos and its own world. 

There are also so many twists and surprises in the various characters as well as the convoluted plotting. If you are a “bobo” viewer, for sure, you would get confused. The show can likewise be pretty violent, but it’s the kind of gore that is meant not only to repulse you but also to agitate and disturb you as the cruelty and depravity escalate as Takeshi moves closer to uncovering the truth. 

The show also has a philosophical subtext, like if you could choose your body, what would you do? It even delves on matters of faith with its take on Catholics who shun stacks and believe there should only be one life. The show also has a multi-national, inter-racial cast with whites, blacks, Latinos and various Asians who offer unabashed nudity and sex scenes. 

In his investigation, Takeshi coordinates with a Hispanic female police officer, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who turns out to be have a romantic connection with Takeshi’s sleeve who used to be known as Ryker.

Other important characters are Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner, very good in looking like the famous American writer), an artificial intelligence who operates the hotel where Takeshi lives; Reileen (Dichen Lachman), Takeshi’s sister who later becomes his mortal foe; Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), a bitter soldier whose wife and daughter were murdered; Miriam Bancroft (Kristin Lehman), the wife of Laurens who turned out to have her own personal agenda; and Quell Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry), the leader of the Envoys who is Takeshi’s one true love and appears to him in his visions.

The series has magnificent glossy visuals as a cyberpunk fantasy world and the ensemble acting is generally splendid, led by Kinnaman. Sometimes, the lengthy expository scenes and dialogue get in the way and make the show lose steam, but as a pulpy noirish sci-fi actioner and murder-mystery whodunit, it surely delivers.