Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s a fantastic sci-fi series with a stellar cast and a story and production values that rival the original Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel: Altered Carbon is based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name, a story about Takeshi Kovacs, a future soldier in a world where science has developed a hard drive called a “stack” that is implanted in humans’ necks, allowing our memories to be uploaded to storage and replanted over and over so they seemingly can live forever, even in new bodies. That conceit allows Kovacs and other characters to be played by any number of actors, which could allow the series to run forever much as Doctor Who’s regeneration mechanism allows replacement Doctors. Originally launched on Netflix in 2018, Altered Carbon has been extended for a second season, with filming underway last year, and viewers should expected a second season trailer and 2020 air date any day. Which means fans of the Syd Mead, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick brand of futurism, and all things borg, should catch up on the first season now. What does it mean to be human, and how much can you shed away and replace with technology and still retain the “self”? Altered Carbon tackles the philosophical questions The Matrix film series tried to answer.
Kovacs, played by several actors (more on that below), is a 300-year-old soldier. As a seasoned fighter 250 years ago he was the last of a mercenary group called the Envoys, leading a rebellion against the new world order. Kovacs’s stack is shelved for the intervening 250 years until one of the wealthiest men alive, Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purefoy (an actor who has been runner up for the James Bond film roles and appeared in A Knight’s Tale and The Following), buys his stack and puts it in a new body or “sleeve,” giving Kovacs the opportunity to live anew if he agrees to find Bancroft’s killer. This is a bleak world, filled with virtual reality and virtual sex, body swapping and trafficking, and the kind of tech noir, bleak, dystopian realm seen in Strange Days, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Ready Player One, The Running Man, Brazil, Total Recall, with the violence of A Clockwork Orange, but maybe not so hopeless as in Elysium, Mad Max, Gattaca, Terminator, and Dredd.
The series, which has a slow start and doesn’t kick into high gear until the second episode, also has the John Carpenter Escape from New York vibe but with Blade Runner visuals and effects, plus the creative elements of Total Recall that made for some unexpected surprises. Altered Carbon is a close match to RoboCop as future science and technology goes, so it’s easy to see why the casting agents brought along RoboCop remake star Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs’ primary sleeve in the first season. This sleeve was last owned by a cop killed in duty named Ryker. Ryker’s partner, Kristin Ortega, played by Mexican actress Martha Higareda (McFarland USA, Royal Pains), takes on the role of the season’s co-lead, struggling as she sees her old partner’s body and acting to protect his sleeve, trying to solve the murder of Bancroft, and uncovering the bad cops in the bureau. Ortega is a badass character in a small package who gets in and out of several fights that would take down anyone else in any other story, and she is the high point of the series–at one point an incident results in a loss of an arm, soon replaced by a powerful cybernetic arm. An interesting twist is that her family are Catholics, and in this future Catholics don’t believe in the stacks, which means once they die they are dead forever. This sets up one of the more interesting plot threads. If it seems like the series has a lot going on, that’s because it does. But it all comes together in a satisfying way in the final episodes.
Upon Kovacs’ return to the world–at the beginning of the series–he finds a place to live in a virtual reality “themed-hotel” called The Raven situated in a seedy part of San Francisco, run by an artificial intelligence named Poe, played brilliantly by Chris Conner (Burn Notice, House, Bones). Once you’re a guest of the hotel, you get all kinds of protective measures, the best involving a laser defense system that drops from the ceiling. To investigate the murder Kovacs enlists a former marine named Vernon, played by Ato Essandoh (X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Vinyl, Law & Order), whose wife (returning in a male sleeve played by Cliff Chamberlain) was taken and daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law) was murdered. Poe is enlisted to help what is left of Lizzie’s mind, setting up another great heroine in the series, inside and outside the virtual realm. Other great roles go to Renee Goldsberry as a fierce Envoy leader from Kovacs’ past and Nepalese-Australian actress Dichen Lachman as Kovacs’ equally fierce sister.
The great supporting cast is a Who’s Who of genre television: Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, and Continuum’s Tahmoh Penikett, Captain America: The First Avenger, Walking Tall, The X-Files, and Star Trek First Contact’s Neal McDonough, The Max Headroom Show, Orphan Black, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Matt Frewer, Bones, Serenity, and Lost’s Tamara Taylor, Arrow, The Expanse, and Wu Assassin’s Byron Mann, Star Trek, Community, and Knives Out’s Marlene Forte, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Colony, and The Rookie’s Adam Busch, and iZombie, Godzilla, and Legends of Tomorrow’s Hiro Kanagawa. Look forward to Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Adjustment Bureau, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) joining the cast as a new Kovacs sleeve, with Simone Missick (Marvel’s Luke Cage, The Defenders) in season two.
If it suffers at all as a series it’s the way the production doesn’t take advantage of the novel’s lead character being part Asian, swapping him out for a more familiar anglo movie actor (as was done with Tom Cruise taking the lead role in Edge of Tomorrow, originally a Japanese character in the source novel All You Need is Kill). The lead character, Kovacs, is played by Will Yun Lee (Hawaii Five-O, Bionic Woman, Witchblade), but only infrequently, opting instead to highlight anglo actor Joel Kinnaman, star of RoboCop, Suicide Squad, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as Kovacs in a different “sleeve.” The production had another shot at changing that focus for season two, but is opting for a similar bigger name star (Anthony Mackie) to play Kovacs for the majority of the season.
The series is also heavy at times, and is not a recommended series for binge-watching. It’s a hard Rated R with sex, sexual violence, and extensive nudity, and is best taken in weekly doses. More minor flaws include not addressing Kovacs’ reactions to a world 250 years after his death, so we’re left to assume the place he left behind was similar to where he arrived (that would be like dying in 1770 and waking up in 2020 and not noticing any differences in the world). His character could have been explored like John Spartan in Demolition Man–Kovacs feels like he should be a similar character–but the show’s success is also finding new ways to approach the problems someone in his shoes might face. So it’s not really about those 250 years. And there’s a lot of smoking going on, even for noir.
Cool props, cool costumes, cool sets and visual effects. Cyberpunk, tech noir, future military, dystopian mystery. A hero with a pink children’s backpack. It’s fantastic. It’s thought-provoking. And it’s dark and not going to be for everyone. The first ten episodes of Altered Carbon are now streaming on Netflix. Look for season two to arrive later this year.