Review: Altered Carbon, Season One

Netflix’s adaptation of the sci-fi novel Altered Carbon was first put on my radar by Ashley of Robo♥beat, who is a fan of the book. Later, I listened to one of my friends here in the city raving about it while we were at dinner. With two people whose opinions I respect recommending it, I figured it was time to give it a try.

The logo for the Netflix series Altered CarbonAltered Carbon is cyberpunk-ish series depicting a far future where consciousness has been digitized, allowing people to continually download into new bodies as a form of immortality (Battlestar Galactica fans will find much of this series feels familiar). The rich can afford an endless supply of clones of their original body, while the poor are crammed into whatever body — or “sleeve” in the show’s lingo — is available.

Into this world awakens Takeshi Kovacs, a veteran of a failed revolution who is hired by one of the ruling aristocracy to solve the murder of his last body. As he investigates the case, Kovacs comes face to face with a conspiracy spanning centuries, and the brutal realities of life in the future.

And let’s be clear: It is brutal. This is by far the most absurdly violent and gorey show I’ve ever seen, and I used to be a huge Dexter fan. There’s also more nudity than I’ve ever seen on TV.

Mind you, I’m quite unfazed by both blood and boobs, so I wouldn’t say this is a complaint.

It does sort of touch on my one big issue with Altered Carbon, though, and that’s that this is a show with absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.

Kovacs and his sister in one of Altered Carbon's flashback sequencesThe social commentary, for instance, could give Bioshock a run for its money in the realm of ham-fisted delivery. Just as in the case of Bioshock, I even agree with the show’s politics, but even so it’s just so over the top and shamelessly unsubtle I have to facepalm a bit.

Similarly, most of the characters are cliched to the point of being utterly cartoonish, as is a fair bit of the dialogue.

The one exception to this — and a major highlight of the show — is Poe, an artificial intelligence who runs the hotel where Kovacs stays and has chosen to construct his persona in imitation of Edgar Allen Poe. He’s the perfect gentlemen, and a delight in every scene he’s in.

I also found it very visually appealing show, albeit in a dirty and gritty sort of way. The production values and special effects are easily equal to any Hollywood blockbuster.

The action sequences are excellent, as well. The fight scenes are so intense and well-choreographed they could almost give Continuum a run for its money.

Almost.

Takeshi Kovacs in Altered CarbonAs for the main plot, it’s… decent. Altered Carbon sort of turns into a different show about halfway through, and I actually like what it evolves into, but it takes some adjustment.

It does do a very good job of exploring the personal and social ramifications of being able to download one’s mind into new bodies… but I didn’t find this quite so clever or thought-provoking as the writers probably hoped. Perhaps because I’ve already seen similar ideas elsewhere in sci-fi, or perhaps because I’ve never been all that attached to my own body.

It’s also a bit jarring how the actor who plays Kovacs’ original sleeve is so much better than the actor who plays Kovacs’ current sleeve, with the end result that I really like Kovacs as a character… but only in his flashbacks.

All in all, while Altered Carbon tries to sell itself as intelligent sci-fi, I think it’s much more accurately described as a simple-minded action-adventure/softcore porn series. Looked at through that lens, it’s a fun ride.

If there’s a second season, I’ll watch it.

Overall rating: 7.1/10

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2 thoughts on “Review: Altered Carbon, Season One

  1. Awww Continuum! I miss that show. I agree that Altered Carbon is not at all subtle, and there are times when I feel like it’s just trying to be the new HBO with some of the extreme violence and nudity. But that’s what the book was to me too, so I felt like it fit! It’s interesting you say you’ve seen some of these ideas before in other sci-fi, because for me Altered Carbon’s focus on the human body is really different than anything I’ve seen before. Anyway, great review!

    • I haven’t seen anything exactly like Altered Carbon, but I have seen similar ideas. I read a series of short stories a few years ago with a similar premise, but more a whimsical take on the idea. In that case the new body you downloaded into didn’t even need to be human. The main character’s wife had become a house cat, and I believe his partner on the police force was a duck.

      And of course as I mentioned there was Battlestar Galactica, where the Cylons could continually reincarnate by downloading into new bodies upon death.

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