No body lives forever: First impressions of Altered Carbon

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

We are all fond of fairytales.

Oh, I don’t mean those charmingly barbed and dark morality plays that we have Disneynified so they are little more than quaint stories with an appealing message; I ‘m talking about those societal-wide delusions that we all take onboard as we grow up, the ones that speak loftily of progress, evolution, growth and advancement.

The ones that envisage us always getting better.

While we might like to cling to them, especially in these currently trying times where down is up, dark is light and everything appears to be going backwards with a swastika affixed to it, shows like Altered Carbon are having no truck with them, in ways astonishingly honest, emotionally-resonant and violently confrontational.

Centuries into the future, Altered Carbon, a Netflix original based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name, offers up a galaxy – humanity has gone to the stars with all the rapaciousness and greed you might expect – controlled by the ominously-named protectorate where alien technology has allowed peoples’ consciousnesses to be stored in “stacks”, effectively a USB stick on multiple steroids that houses their entire sense of self within.

In effect, people cannot die now, their deaths now a mere transition to a new “sleeve” or body, the variety and quality of these new bodies subject, much like to now, to the capacity of the person to pay for them.

With the settlement of multiple planets driven by brutalist capitalism, and underpinned by suspect morality that pays more heed to dollars in the bank than real meritocracy or worth, most people are reduced to living in the “bottom”, the rain-drenched, neon-lit caverns created by the skyscrapers that rise into, and well beyond, the clouds.

The truly blessed are the Meths – short for Methuselah, the name taken from a Biblical figure reputed to have lived for 969 years – who have the longevity and the wealth to select the best sleeves and to avoid the insanity that can result from multiple sleevings; everyone else? They’re at the mercy of the state, and as you might expect, it is wholly and corruptly enthral to the Meths.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

So essentially the more things change the more they stay the same, with human nature devolving to the worst of its impulses, rarely its best.

Those fairytales we were talking about? Just that, something that the protagonist in Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman / Will Yun Lee) learnt a long time ago at the hands of a cruel, horrifically violent father who subjected his son and daughter, Takeshi’s beloved younger sister Reileen aka Rei (Dichen Lachman), to nightmares unimaginable.

On ice for 250 years after he was deemed a terrorist for fighting back against the totalitarian Protectorate – you can pretty much guess who they’re protecting and it ain’t anyone dwelling below the cloud cover – his stack shelved as part of a prison sentence, Kovacs wakes up in 2384 to discover that time may pass but your childhood remains very much with you, even in a new sleeve.

Reeling, as all newly-awakened people do, with reconciling his past with his present, a dissonant process no doubt responsible for all that immortal madness going around, Kovacs is given a mission by the person who awakens him the obscenely wealthy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to track down his killer, a person unknown thanks to the loss of the last 48 hours of the rich man’s consciousness leading up to his “death”.

To all intents and purposes, you can thus call Altered Carbon, a bright, gaudy, dark-souled whodunnit, much like Bladerunner which it resembles, without being derivative, visually and tonally, and yes in futuristically Agatha Christie-like fashion, a killer is found; but in every sense possible this breathtakingly sprawling series of 10 episodes is so much more than that.

On its way to fingering a suspect, not once but twice – why will make sense when you watch this fantastically complex, intricately-layered show – Altered Carbon makes some savage, biting observations about humanity, its shining attributes and its all too corruptible soul, and the fantasy of upward momentum and transformative change.

Yes, we are hundreds of years into the future, and countless light years from Earth, with technology that has effectively allowed many people, though again nowhere near all, to be effectively immortal, but the same old dynamics play out, some of them in ways you simply don’t see coming and that will have you guessing right up to the blood-soaked end.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Be warned that on its way to all this great insightfulness and the very best and worse of humanity, things don’t always rush to a tidy end.

In fact, again much like Bladerunner, Altered Carbon is content to let its story unfold in ways slow and measured, quick to the pace and frenetic but always with an eye to carefully unspooling its onion-like narrative.

This means that even though we are given a richly-complicated story packed full of nuance and complexity, there’s still plenty of time to get to know an assortment of characters, all of whom are given plenty of time to grow, develop and contribute in meaningful ways to the plot, which place in the present and the past when Kovacs was an “Envoy”, a rebel against the ruling Protectorate, and in love with the rebellion’s leader, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).

From humanity-adoring AI Poe (Chris Conner), who is the hotel in which Kovacs stays (and hands down my favourite character among many) through to policewoman Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) who is unaccountably angry with Kovacs with an agenda all her own to Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh), a man who simply wants his traumatised daughter back and Bancrofts’s conniving but desperately lost wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman), Altered Carbon takes its time to bring these people to us, weave them skilfully and fulsomely into the narrative and make each and every one of them integral to its stunning resolution.

The detail is astonishingly profound, with every last dangling plot rope neatly woven up into a riveting conclusion, one which despite its definitive nature, neatly and quite naturally leads into an almost inevitable season 2.

It’s well nigh impossible to go into this detail in too much, well, detail, since much of Altered Carbon‘s appeal hinges onto the ever-unraveling layers of reveal; suffice to say it’s a big, glossy cinematic tale of epic proportions that deftly and engagingly serves up a murder mystery, societal critique and observations about the good and the bad in humanity, and how even love can become twisted into unrecognisable shapes, that will have you bingeing like nobody’s business as you wonder if that much-longed for fountain of youth is really all it’s cracked up to be.

Quick answer, no; but Altered Carbon most definitely is and it will leave you wishing you had countless lives (or not) to watch it over and over again, or at least more vacation which if people like the Bancrofts are any guide, is probably the safer option and all round better for your soul.

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