We still have a few weeks before Altered Carbon hits Netflix, bringing Richard K. Morgan's dystopian slice of neon cyberpunk action to living rooms across the globe. However, two folks on the BMD squad - myself and Mr. Andrew Todd - were lucky enough to catch an early glimpse of the gorgeous, big budgeted ten-episode series, and we're here to tell you it's delivering the hyper-nerdy goods.
To celebrate and get you guys as excited as we are, we thought we'd throw together some early thoughts, so that you can start planning your own binge-watch when the show hits the streaming service Friday February 2nd.
I’ve been a fan of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon since I read it about a decade ago, and when I saw Netflix was making an adaptation of it, I was highly skeptical. The book is laden with high-concept cyberpunk ideas, hyper-violent action scenes, surreal virtual-reality sequences, and some rather R-rated sexual content. To produce a faithful adaptation would require an enormous budget, and anyone doling out that much money would almost certainly edit some of the content to appeal to a broader audience.
Incredibly, Netflix has produced an adaptation that’s faithful to the book where it matters (as far as I can remember, anyway), and an improvement where it needed it. Morgan’s thorough exploration of his principal sci-fi conceit - that in the future, our consciousnesses will be saved on small discs called “stacks”, and “resleeved” into new bodies when we die - is all here, and the show pursues all the weird expressions of that the book does. You’ll see zero-g fight scenes and futuristic firefights; glittering skyscrapers and disease-ridden slums; custom-made mutant bodies; virtual reality torture; disembowelments, beheadings, and more. James Purefoy even hangs dong.
Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis has smartly expanded upon some of the novel’s weaknesses, too, giving protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (played by Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun Lee, and others) smart, varied, interesting characters to work with. She’s also dramatised much of the internal monologue that characterised the book’s cyber-noir atmosphere, using flashbacks and hallucinations with self-awareness and dramatic payoff. And there’s a strong sense of dark humour running through the show; all you Star Wars fans are going to have a new favourite “Poe” when you watch Altered Carbon.
Many will look at Altered Carbon’s grimy, neon-lit streets and transparent umbrellas and see only a Blade Runner clone. But there’s more to the show than that, and frankly more interesting ideas at play, to me at least - concerning identity, faith, sexuality, aging, inequality (oh, so much about inequality), family, rebellion, and the nature of consciousness, expressed through the detailed world and through drama. I’m still working my way through the show, but I’m shocked so far at how good it is - how funny, how emotional, and how laden with cool sci-fi shit, all at once. As a reader of the book, I’m biased, and I have a few issues that I’ll cover in a more detailed review, but overall, Altered Carbon is very much my shit.
So, give the series a shot when it launches. If you’re turned off by cyberpunk, there’s likely little in Altered Carbon that’ll change your mind about that, but if you’re even slightly interested, the show will dazzle you with smart ideas, high-budget execution, and even some likeable characters. Don’t get those much in this subgenre. - Andrew Todd
Like Andrew, I was also skeptical regarding Altered Carbon, but for totally personal reasons. Simply put, I'm not a television watcher anymore. This isn't a judgement of quality, mind you; merely one of media preference. When you watch 400 - 500 movies per calender period, a ten-hour series is tough to justify. That's five two-hour films! In this job, the numbers just don't add up - espeically when a solid portion of the pictures you're watching are for work, and not solely for pleasure. In short, a show has got to be really good in order for me to watch the pilot, let alone plow through all of it.
So, when I queued up the first episode of Altered Carbon, I half-expected to shoot a message out to Scott saying "hey, I'm not gonna finish this." Three hours later, I was utterly hooked; mostly due to the extremely unified cinematic texture Laeta Kalogridis and her crew have crafted throughout the first season's ten installments. Altered Carbon looks big and expensive; a widescreen futuristic tableau that's brimming from corner-to-corner of your television with an amount of detail you wish you could witness on the big screen. Every enviroment has been fully sketched by production designer Carey Meyer, and then fleshed out by an expert team of SFX artists. When we're down on the ground with Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), every prop and piece of mechanical body modifcation feels tangible and interacted with, the oversized weapons and protective body armor bulky and cumbersome, clashing with the otherwise chic plasticity of this world. Plus, it's all wet and icky; doused in rain water or other fluids - most manufactured - bringing an organic moistness that draws us in, and renders it all immersive.
Yet while we're able to virtually smell the dystopian nature of these recycled souls' existences, Kinnaman's performance keeps the entire endeavor bouncy and fun. He isn't some brooding anti-hero, stoically staring the show's big questions about faith, flesh and destiny down. Instead, Kovacs is played as a scoundrel - a wise-ass who deals out death and wicked sarcasm in equal measure. While many have written Kinnaman off as just another bland white dude performer after the ill-advised RoboCop remake and putrid Suicide Squad, it's also good to remember how sly and convincing he was as former junkie detective Stephen Holder in The Killing. The dude's got game, and has also worked his body into a glistening marvel of ripples, physically molding the rebirthed investigator into near Universal Soldier levels of demolition man. Add on a sidekick that's a deadly AI pop re-invention of your favorite Gothic horror author, and you've got a central duo whose mystery-hunting keeps you clicking on "Next Episode".
While we're on the subject of hard bodies, Altered Carbon is also sexy enough to make you want to take a cold shower after each episode. The re-animated spirits indulge each others' clones with reckless abandon, leading to scenes of eroticism that're rather hot. The cyberpunk microcosm of Altered Carbon provides many outlets for these characters to play out several fetishistic sex scenes, lending the production an R-rated "pushing the limits of good taste" sheen of carnality. This is certainly not the show you want to recommend to your prude aunt.
As Andrew also mentioned, we're going to be diving in-depth on Altered Carbon as we get closer to release, but really just wanted you to keep this one on your radar until two Fridays from now. There are so many themes and aesthetic delights to be analyzed - one could arguably spend an entire essay on the impeccably staged action alone - that one article is just not going to suffice. Hopefully, we can convince our BMD comrades to join in on the fun and get lost in this Wachowski wet dream with us, as the numerous angles it explores regarding human perspective and mortality (all while delivering such violent delights) lend themselves to personal approach and introspection. This is one hell of an entertaining accomplishment Kalogridis and Netflix have pulled off, and we can't wait to see what you guys think of Altered Carbon, too. - Jacob Knight
Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix February 2nd.