You can see elements of other science fiction classics in Altered Carbon – protagonist wakes up after hundreds of year (Samurai Jack); those who can afford it can live forever via imprinting their souls on ‘stacks,’ which then be inserted into the body (called a sleeve) of one’s choosing (Ghost in the Shell) and a setting very similar to Blade Runner – but even when a series wears its influences on its (ahem) sleeves, it can still be something bigger, smaller or equal to those influences.
Altered Carbon is mostly equal – and a lot of fun.
Takeshi Kovacs (pronounced Ko-vatch) is awakened after 250 years in ‘the dark’ to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft was murdered just before his self was due to be uploaded to a backup system – making him unable to remember the two hours before his death.
There’s a reason why Kovacs, specifically, is approached – it has something to do with his being an ENVOY – a very specialized kind of soldier; part of a rebel force that tried to destroy stacking technology (they believed that no one should be able to continue to live past the point of a natural death).
Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) takes the gig rather than return to the dark because mere hours after Bancroft made the offer, two thugs try to kill him.
As a base of operations, Kovacs takes a room at AI hotel The Raven, where the concierge, Poe (Chris Conner) takes the form of Edgar Allan Poe and occasionally quotes him.
We see The Raven’s ability to protect its customers in a bloody scene that also reinforces Kovacs’ resolve to solve Bancroft’s murder.
There are, of course, dozens of suspects (carefully weeded out after reconnaissance at a party Bancroft arranges for that purpose) – including Bancroft’s wife Miriam (Kristen Lehman), son Isaac (Anthony Marziale), lawyer Oumou Prescott (Tamara Taylor), and various business associates.
Kovacs butts heads with hardboiled cop Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) – who also believes, despite evidence to the contrary) that Bancroft did not commit suicide). There’s a great reason she’s leery of Kovacs – it’s a killer!
As Kovacs goes on about his job, there are digressions (we learn more about Ortega’s family) and flashbacks that fill in Kovacs’ (played in the past by Will Yun Lee) background (where we meet his sister, Reilynn, played by Dichen Lachlan – both of which suggest that in this world, at least, there’s no such thing as whitewashing (Kovacs turns up in a couple of other sleeves – including a black man…).
As a recently released convict, Kovacs got the first sleeve available – though with enhanced skills (another sequence gives us Ortega’s grandmother in the sleeve of tattooed thug – it’s a sequence that combines nuance and juvenile humor).
Ortega has been blocked at every turn in her investigation by her boss, Captain Tanaka (Hiro Kanagawa) and, eventually, decides to work with Kovacs rather than keep giving him the gears.
Kovacs enlists help from IT wizards Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh) and his wife, Ava (Courtney Richter/Cliff Chamberlin) and Ortega has been getting unsanctioned help from police IT specialist Mickey (Adam Busch).
Eventually, their work will lead to an orbiting bordello that caters to extreme tastes…
Altered Carbon is based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan (the first in a season, so further seasons could be possible – with different actors playing Kovacs) and, based on the Netflix series, I expect it would well worth picking up (if it didn’t seem to be out of print).
The series is definitely not aimed at kids (more early twenties – and fans of Blade Runner), with its over-the-top violence and sex (neither of which feels particularly gratuitous in the moment).
The cast is extremely good – Kovacs could have been written expressly for Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, it so captures their particular sill sets – but what is really impressive is the performances by bit players (the tatted-up thug who is brought back as Ortega’s grandmother also plays a tatted-up thug who is nothing like her, and he plays both equally well).
Higareda makes a great hardboiled-cop-with-a-fiery-temper, and although she’s tiny compared to, say, Kinnaman, she makes us believe she’s a badass.
Matt Frewer plays a guy named Carnage, who owns an establishment that features all kinds of different fights – and caters to the rich and willing to bet. He’s more dangerous than he looks – and he looks pretty fierce (even with pink hair – or maybe because of it).
Developed for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (who wrote the premiere and co-wrote the finale), Altered Carbon isn’t quite as brilliant as it thinks it is, but its got an edgy, B-movie grit to it; fun characters, and plot points that kept me up until 3 in blessed a.m.
It also, just in passing, notes that when the rich can live forever, they can control the poor – who can’t. So, a little philosophical underpinning gives Altered Carbon just enough depth that it makes bingeing all ten episodes even more, weird fun.
Final Grade: B+