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Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ is a dark and dizzying cyberpunk thriller

It's violence and cruelty may turn off some, but it'll entrance sci-fi nerds.
Netflix. Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon.
Netflix. Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon.
Published Jan. 31, 2018|Updated Feb. 1, 2018

Altered Carbon is like sickly sweet candy for science fiction fans.

It's backbone is an increasingly complicated story based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, but the new Netflix original is so full of eye-popping visuals and bloody savagery that it's often dizzying.

The series is a hardboiled cyberpunk thriller set 500 years in the future. Humans have achieved immortality through technology — by storing human consciousness in hockey puck-sized disks called "stacks" that are implanted into the base of the skull. Stacks can be moved from one body to the next, dubbed "sleeves."

When you die, you can be born again, essentially, in a new body. Any kind of body you want.

But there's a catch, as there always is in a country consumed by capitalism. Immortality comes at a high price, and only the wealthiest can afford new sleeves. These long-living elites are nicknamed "Meths" like the Biblical figure Methuselah, who reported lived to the age of 969.

Altered Carbon presents a unceasingly bleak future. The super-rich amass vaults full of cloned sleeves, backup their data every 48 hours and continue to get richer by the minute. Those who can't afford new sleeves keep their loved ones' stacks in jewelry or save up to rent a temporary sleeve for special occasions.

The gap between the uber-rich and the lower classes is so stark that the wealthy literally live in the clouds in massive suspended mansions far above the poverty and squalor of the city streets.

Surrounding these existential questions of what makes someone human and the downloadability of a soul is a noir murder-mystery. Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman; played in flashbacks by Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann) is a former interstellar warrior "woken up" from an artificial womb some 200 years after his former self was killed on a distant planet.

Kovacs used to be an envoy, a soldier turned freedom fighter whose knowledge of weaponry is more than matched by his fighting skills. His stack has been placed into the body of crooked cop Elias Ryker after he's bought by trillionaire Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to help solve Bancroft's own murder.

The focus of Bancroft's murder quickly takes a backseat to the unbearable cruelty the rich often inflict on other people. The series puts much emphasis on the expendable nature of bodies — couples fight to the death to win an upgraded sleeve, sex workers are frequently murdered for fun (they get a new sleeve in the morning) and suspects and convicted criminals can be virtually tortured endlessly until they break.

As Kovacs investigates various leads to the murder and others based on his own curiosity, it's clear this future is one crippled by a class system of a technologically gilded age.

It's with this focus on gore and brutality that Altered Carbon falters. Violence quickly becomes gratuitous, and little complexity and emotion is given to main characters. Kovacs has a complicated backstory, but its details often fall flat next to the prestige-level gore and commentary on social injustices.

The series also spends a lot of time of slow world-building, resulting in an overly complex plot. This is not one of those series that can be turned on in the background while you clean.

Where Altered Carbon succeeds is in its stunning style. Its neon-lit buildings and grimy cityscapes are draped in a hazy blue that makes the entire series feel cold and calculated. It also mixes together familiar sci-fi ideas and storytelling styles reminiscent of popular franchises like Blade Runner, Black Mirror and Electric Dreams.

Its violence and bleak cruelty may not be for everyone, but it will entrance sci-fi junkies.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.


Altered Carbon

3 a.m. Friday, Netflix


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