Altered Carbon – Episode 1: Out of the Past

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun lee, Martha Higareda, James Purefoy, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Byron Mann and Chris Conner
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis

Review by: Sidney Morgan

Altered Carbon, a new cyberpunk show premiering on Netflix on February 2nd, is a feast for the eyes! In this first episode, Sapochnik (Game of Thrones) introduces us to a beautifully crafted and visually stunning world. Set in Bay City (a future San Francisco), technology has allowed humans to achieve immortality. Sort of. Everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve ever felt and experienced, all your memories, all the information in your brain can now be stored on a disk called a ‘stack.’ This future equivalent of a USB can be inserted into the spine of a ‘sleeve,’ a human body or shell, and voila! Off you go and live on until you need, or want a new sleeve. But, you have to be careful, as it isn’t completely death proof. The idea of the ‘stack’ is straightforward, but its integration and use in this future society is complex and trying to explain it here would be too long.

At its root, Altered Carbon is a murder mystery. Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy – The Following, Hap, and Leonard) offers money, freedom and a full pardon to most recent Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman – Suicide Squad, The Killing) in exchange for solving a murder. But, there’s a snag. The murder is his own. Yep, you read that right, his own. But wait, isn’t Bancroft alive? Well, yes he is! And after his meeting with Kovacs, you’ll understand how this plays out.

The cinematography and the settings are gorgeous. From the vast cityscapes to the more intimate locations, Netflix apparently spared no expense. It’s a visual feast that in itself, would be reason enough to watch the show. The CGI, and there is quite a bit of it, seamlessly fits and supports the story without distraction. The dark and rainy surface world is reflective of the lower classes inhabiting the area, whereas the mansions above the clouds, where it is sunny and bright, house the rich upper classes.

It’s only the first episode, and much of the dialogue and character interactions were expository, introducing Kovacs and the idea of stacks and sleeves while setting up the murder mystery, but I liked the actors. Kinnaman maintains a serious, calm outward appearance, even though he’s a highly trained lethal combat operative. He’s convincing as someone who’s struggling with his past, and he’s sarcastic! The cast of supporting characters, including Detective Ortega, Poe, Reileen Kawahara, and Quellcrist Falconer, appears strong and well cast, though it’s still too early to tell how they will impact the story or even how much screen time they will have.

There’s been some controversy with the adaptation, much of it generated prior to any screeners being released, that it was another blatant example of whitewashing, à la Ghost in the Shell, but I think that the accusation is harsh. I haven’t read Richard K. Morgan’s novel, but I dug around and found that having Takeshi Kovacs inserted in a white man’s sleeve is actually accurate. It’s exactly what happens in the novel. The problem though is the narrative point of view.

In the novel, the reader sees the world through Kovacs’ eyes. Everything is communicated through his cultural filter (he was of Japanese and Eastern European descent), even if he was in a Caucasian sleeve. This works well in novels but is much more difficult to achieve on screen, a medium where we watch the action unfold in front of us. We are not in the character’s head, but rather, we are spectators. We see Kovacs through our eyes, our filters, and in Netflix’s adaptation, we see the sleeves. In all, there are three versions of Kovacs in this adaptation: Kinnaman, Mann (The Expanse, Arrow), who is another sleeve, and Lee (The Wolverine, Falling Water), who plays Kovacs in his original birth body. Mann and Lee are both of Asian descent.

Watch it!
It’s only the first episode, but there’s already a strong foundation for further episodes. The world in which Altered Carbon takes place is complex. The idea of stacks, the immortality it offers, how it affects society, family, religion, government, the military, and organized crime, just to name a few areas, is fascinating. And besides these broad issues, there’s the actual story that’s unfolding. Who murdered Bancroft? What’s Kovacs’ backstory? What will be Poe’s role (because I just love the comedic relief he brings)? Will Kovacs and Ortega partner up to solve Bancroft’s murder? One hour and so many questions. You want drama? Action? Comedy? Romance? Some place to escape? Altered Carbon gives you a bit of everything. So, sit back, put up your feet and enjoy.

Altered Carbon premieres February 2nd, on Netflix.

Sidney Morgan

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