'Altered Carbon': TV Review

Sci-fi gold.
2/2/2018

Ambitious, dense and thrilling, Netflix's new sci-fi epic starring Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy and Martha Higareda is a binge-worthy potential blockbuster.

One of the great benefits of the Platinum Age of television, where there's both vastly increased competition and companies with fat stacks of money willing to invest in content, is that something like Netflix's latest drama, Altered Carbon, can well and truly be called insanely ambitious without exaggeration.

If HBO's Game of Thrones was the gold standard of budget, world-building source material and unfettered vision, then the channel's own pricey, stylistic venture, Westworld, was the next iteration and somewhere in the not-too-distant future there is, looming large, Amazon's gratuitously expensive Lord of the Rings franchise. Everybody wants (and, arguably, needs) a blockbuster that, even in this cluttered Peak TV landscape, draws what amounts to unending attention.

Altered Carbon is very clearly Netflix's colossus. Based on Richard K. Morgan's 2002 cyberpunk sci-fi novel of the same name, Altered Carbon is a complicated, intriguing, ultraviolent, sex-filled and compelling blast, a visual delight that periodically gets tripped up with its writing but never enough to detour the experience.

Altered Carbon is flawed, but it's also fantastic.

This is binge-ready sci-fi for the masses.

It's impossible to not reference Blade Runner in connection with Altered Carbon, in the same way that Amazon's recent Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams was inextricably linked to Black Mirror, and Black Mirror was linked all the way back to The Twilight Zone. Science fiction eats its own and always has (just as the most hardcore fans of the genre devour fellow fans in pointless arguments about originality, canon and execution).

Clearly, Altered Carbon, which took an epic, 15-year trip from book to optioned film rights to Netflix original series, will be subjected to the slings and arrows of both fans of the book and fans of other sci-fi series, but that's all expected crossfire. What really matters is that the series hooks from the opening minutes and only builds the desire to binge episodes as it unrolls.

Starring Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Ato Essandoh, Chris Conner and a large, impressive cast, Altered Carbon is a goldmine of sci-fi motifs bent and reimagined by Morgan in so many ways and at so many different turns, it's not hard to figure out why the book begged comparisons to Dick and William Gibson (among others) — and why there's always been a fervent desire to get it to the screen.

For fans of the book and TV lovers, it's lucky that creator and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis successfully fought to put it where it belongs — on the small screen, without ratings restrictions, so that the super-complicated story could unfold at pace.

Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys and the upcoming manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel) convinced Morgan of both her adapted vision and the need to give something so dense room to breathe. For viewers coming to the series without reading the source material (routinely the vast majority for things like this), it's not hard to see why as the complex nature of the sci-fi story rolls in fast (which should please book fans) but also revisits the story tenets frequently (and, credit where necessary here, often without feeling redundant or with heavy-handed exposition).

The pilot, written by Kalogridis, has its visual tone set by Emmy-winner director Miguel Sapochnik (Game of Thrones; his win was for "Battle of the Bastards," but he's done four total, including fan favorite "Hardhome"). The triptastic visuals set the hook early as viewers are about to be pulled fast and furiously into the complex, dystopian story that touches on the separation of classes, advanced tech, war, insurgent rebellion and bleak lawlessness — all shrouded in bloody violence, full-frontal nudity, sex and that saturated Blade Runner futurescape that keeps everyone believing there will be flying vehicles, otherworldly weaponry and clothing that runs the gamut from grimy leather to stylishly luxe absurdism.

At the heart of Altered Carbon is this concept: In the 25th century, humans can store their consciousness (the mind, often called "digital human freight," or DHF) on downloadable disks (called "stacks") that are embedded in them when they are a year old; at death they can be "spun up" into new bodies, called "sleeves," either immediately or decades or centuries later.

The catch, of course, is that only the rich can afford the designer sleeves — the best-looking, most youthful or whatever body it is they desire. Not everybody wants to be 21, for example (or maybe just under their clothes). The super-rich are the only ones that can afford the ultimate technology — clones of themselves, restacked every 48 hours, ensuring they will live and rule forever as the same person. Those people are called "meths," a derivative of Methuselahs, and they live in the Aerium, basically skyscrapers in the clouds, while "grounders" live down below, in congested, dirty cities; the series is focused on Bay City, which used to be San Francisco.

When grounders get spun up, either with support of government services (known as "the Protectorate") or the meager financial means of their families, it's often into either older "sleeves" (dead kids coming back looking like homeless grandmothers) or in different genders or races — they don't get a choice. (Separately, Catholics have forbidden followers to be spun up, so once they're dead, they're dead — one of several religious bits that will be explored, apparently, as the 10-episodes season evolves.)

Kinnaman plays Takeshi Kovacs, born to Japanese and Slavic parents (he's played by Will Yun Lee in flashbacks, where 250 years prior he was part of the uprising, a group called the Envoys). Kovacs is re-sleeved into his current body by the ultra-rich Meth, Laurens Bancroft (Purefoy), as the last "living" Envoy and perhaps the only person who can figure out who "murdered" Bancroft as his stack was being uploaded.

Yeah, it's confusing, but it eventually starts to make sense.

Figuring things out is part of the allure of Altered Carbon, so there's little reason to spoil the conceptual architecture that floats the series. Again, Kalogridis and her team of writers (there are also multiple directors) do a fine job of revisiting the mythology at the core of the series without dumbing it down. But Altered Carbon isn't without its flaws, namely a tendency to veer at times into cheesy sci-fi dialogue, which is often an unavoidable side effect of the genre; but as previously mentioned, those detours are limited and there are enough well-written scenes that overcome in ways that can be subtle and touching, especially surrounded by so much visual mayhem.

Kalogridis has already talked about "whitewashing" claims (basically how Lee becomes Kinnaman) and how she was able to add three additional roles for Asian actors (including Dichen Lachman). It should be noted that Altered Carbon has an impressively diverse cast and strong, central roles for women (particularly Hamilton vet Goldsberry and Higareda) and looks to be exploring religions like Catholicism and Islam at the start; it also allows Waleed Zuaiter, as a Muslim detective, to actually be funny, which you don't see much of — and overall there appears to be an effort to make the future world as multicultural as possible, but as a viewer your reactions may vary on those efforts.

There's no denying, however, that Netflix has a success on its hands (though it doesn't release ratings, so you can just guess if that's your interest). Conceptually, in any case, Altered Carbon is a blockbuster — it's a sprawling spectacle that could go on for multiple seasons. In the spirit of Game of Thrones, which every content provider is trying to duplicate, it has a dense, intriguing story that doesn't become so ponderous as to be impenetrable. The cinematography and world-building is impressive frame to frame, the casting strong and all the riveting popcorn elements firmly in place.

While Netflix has rarely betrayed a straight face when it comes to its own content (firmly in the volume vs. prestige camp, with numerous offerings built to satisfy a global audience, which means it rarely jumps up and down about series other than Stranger Things despite having plenty of quality), this series could very well end up being something completely different — even different than the streamer's Marvel franchises.

Altered Carbon could be something truly epic, whether or not it satisfies lovers of the book or sci-fi hardliners. Odds are good that this is a series that's going to generate — and potentially regenerate — tons of interest.

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Chris Connor, Will Yun Lee, Kristin Lehman, Byron Mann
Created and written by: Laeta Kalogridis
Pilot directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)

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