Altered Carbon: Welcome to another bleak, post-democracy and utterly amoral future of high-tech serfdom that we all see clearly arriving in our not-too-distant future but probably won’t be able to avoid.
Glowing Blue Core Alert: Spoilers Ahead.
Joel Kinnaman plays a tough and almost always shirtless ex-freedom fighter Takeshi Kovacs resurrected from a hiatus of 250 years to solve the attempted murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the richest and most evil dude around. Kovacs’ partner is the haunted Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) who seems to have a hidden agenda, and all is not as it seems in this world.
And this world is basically Blade Runner. I’d say it copies from latter, but “clone” might be a more appropriate term given the heavy bio-tech angle of Altered Carbon. There’s no respite to be found anywhere from the harsh dystopian urbanism. Random search lights blare in through the windows. Floating holographic ads swarm like mosquitoes. High above the streets, corporate titans sit far from the reach of law, and at street level the masses move about in the never-ending rain, just trying to make it through another day.
And where are these umbrella-wielding pedestrians going? To prostitutes, apparently. Almost every one of these glowing ads seems to be for prostitution. Human prostitutes? Android? Virtual? We aren’t meant to know. It’s textbook Blade Runner, and Kovacs, in case the point somehow escaped the audience, says outright that people are still basically smart monkeys, interested in shelter food and sex.
The AI beings like Kovacs’ trusty hotelier Poe are the only ones that have any perspective. They seem to know this, referring to humans as “lower forms of life”. And given the Caligula levels of debauchery, it’s hard to argue with them.
In Altered Carbon, the nature of humanity has been forever changed by little glowing blue (Glowing Blue!) disks called “stacks” that sit at the base of your spine and contain your mind, soul, whatever. Get stabbed in the back? Eh no big deal! Just put the little disk in a new body or “sleeve”, as the show calls our organic human forms. The rich can afford nice shiny sleeves. The poor have to get by with much less, including perhaps no body at all. There’s all kinds of post-post-modern horrors to be had here. Murdering a prostitute is legal as long as you buy him/her a new sleeve. At one point a married couple fights to “sleeve-death” for the enjoyment of depraved onlookers. Endless virtual torture seems to be standard protocol for interrogations.
For a time Kovacs considers death to be a happier alternative to living in this world. The cause he fought for 250 years ago lies in total defeat. Jackbooted storm troopers abound, and the “stacks” have created as many problems as they’ve solved. Religions have mostly lost their bearing. There’s a good moment of exploration of faith between Ortega’s Muslim ex-partner and her Catholic mother. Speaking in Arabic and Spanish, respectively.
Altered Carbon makes the point with a fair amount of finesse that even if biological death has been conquered, death as a larger phenomenon is still very much in motion. For ordinary folks, “resleeving” too many times typically ends with insanity. We see that some people eventually choose death, such as Ortega’s grandma who decides not to come back again after one last Dia de los Muertos celebration with her family. It’s a decision which we can imagine most people face sooner or later in this post-mortality future. Death too comes for the ultra rich, whose sleeves are perfect genetic clones into which they can perpetuate themselves indefinitely. But we see that their deaths occur on an existential level. After hundreds of years of indulgence they’ve lost all moorings to reality and become just shades of their former selves. And this point is explicitly made by a super-violent and torturing Russian hitman, naturally.
The show returns to familiar zany fare when Matt Frewer as the colorful fight-club manager known as Carnage traps the two heroes, one with a bionic super arm, in a cage to tangle with mutants. Deus ex Machina appears in the form of a hooded, flipping gymnast sword ninja, and I feel my ass sinking right into the old and comfy cushions of standard sci fi. Oh also, the writers have given themselves a lot of leeway by mentioning that humanity’s death-defying “stack” technology came from poking around ruins of an alien civilization. Thumbs up from me. You just… you just gotta have aliens in here somewhere.
Altered Carbon arrives at the right moment. With serious research into extending human life far beyond our 100-year expiration date and stories of silicon valley CEOs receiving bleeding edge youth-preserving hormone therapies, it does seem like science may one day furnish us with an answer to death. And this dystopian romp does a pretty good job of asking: what kind of life would that be?
Lazy Nerd Says: Someone stole the concept-art sketches from Blade Runner and scooped up some talent from the now-defunct House of Cards show, but dammit, they did a pretty decent job with it all. I recommend.