Netflix continued its foray into the world of science fiction with the series, Altered Carbon, which is based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. The series is visually stunning and reminiscent of Blade Runner as well as a film noir murder mystery. Production values are high, the acting is good, and the story has more twists and turns than a maze. This is one whodunit where the viewer must pay attention or they will become lost in a convoluted mystery. The production immerses the viewer in a world that is both wondrous and frightening. As one character observes, the “natural order” has been disrupted and it is obvious that this is not for the better. Just a quick reminder that this is an adult story and there is a considerable amount of nudity.
At its heart, Altered Carbon is a procedural drama about the murder of a very wealthy individual, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). In this future, because of technology discovered in the ruins of an ancient alien civilization on Mars, the very wealthy can live forever by discarding an old body for a new one. Bodies are referred to as “sleeves.” The consciousness of the individual is recorded in devices called “stacks”, which are embedded into the bodies of the individual. The stacks are periodically backed up in the future version of the cloud. As long as an individual is backed up to the cloud, their stack is intact, and they have the money, they can live forever.
The story begins with Kovacs (Will Yun Lee) in a sleeve, O.G. Kovacs (Byron Mann). He is being hunted by the Colonial Tactical Assault Corp (CTAC) Praetorians, a group of enforcers for the Protectorate, the governing body in the future. At this time, Kovacs is an Envoy, an elite member of a rebel group fighting the Protectorate. After his capture, Kovacs’ consciousness is put on ice. Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is revived (re-sleeved) 250 years after his capture by Bancroft to find Bancroft’s killer.
Bancroft’s killer has done what many thought to be impossible, he has murdered one of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals on the planet in his secluded aerie. The murderer has perfectly timed the shooting to coincide with the exact moment when Bancroft’s consciousness is being uploaded to his secure server. The killer also manages to corrupt Bancroft’s secure backup server. Fortunately for Bancroft, he has a spare backup, but this backup is missing key recent information such as who murdered him.
Of course, in a noir murder mystery, the hero is never alone in their effort to solve the crime. The hero must have a hard-nosed detective who also is searching for the truth. In Altered Carbon, this is Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) who, must contend with her corrupt boss, Captain Tanaka (Hiro Kanagawa). There is the obligatory sidekick, Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), as well as a high-tech sidekick, Poe (Chris Conner), who is a sentient AI that runs a hotel. No film noir is complete without a mysterious bad guy, Mr. Leung (Trieu Tran) or a hero’s lost love, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
If this mix is not complicated enough, there of course must be suspects. Some of the possible suspects are Bancroft’s bored wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman), Bancroft’s drunken son Isaac (Antonio Marziale), and a gangster-thug Dimitri Kadmin (Tahmoh Peniket), who has a history with Kovacs’ sleeve. Each episode introduces more characters and stories involving AIs, lawyers, wives, daughters, siblings, and other possible suspects in an unbelievably complex tale which is somehow both successfully and satisfactorily concluded at the end.
Over the course of the series, the viewer learns about Kovacs’ (Will Yun Lee) very complicated history. At one point, he was a member of the Praetorians before becoming an Envoy. How Kovacs joined both the Praetorians and the rebels involves his sister, Reileen (Dichen Lachman). There is one scene involving Reileen that has some of the most intricate and epic sword fighting on television!
Netflix clearly has another hit on its hands. Every aspect of the series is excellent. The only question is whether or not there will be a second season as there are questions that still need to be answered. The most important question is what happened to the aliens who built the ruins on Mars? Also, what is the long-term effect on humans of using the alien technology? There are references to a certain mental aberration caused by changing sleeves too often. Is this related to what happened to the “dead” alien race?
Altered Carbon is what good science fiction should be. It is troubling and thought provoking at the same time. It creates a new world that is inhabited by a humanity that is unfortunately smarter than it is wise. The series questions whether ultimately humanity is worthy of immortality. For Altered Carbon, the answer is no.
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