Death is synonymous with a sort of finality. How often have we heard warriors in movies bombastically claiming that they will fight until death? Although most of us are scared of the end, we also make peace with it when it comes. I know this because I never miss a chance to talk with the elderly – the conversations are, without exception, enlightening. There is a sense of calm acceptance in them. Of course, death does not always announce itself. Sometimes, it comes when you least expect. There are accidents, murders, terrorist attacks, suicides and so on.
Netflix’s brash new cyberpunk series Altered Carbon pictures a world wherein humans, at least the rich ones, have won over death. The show is based on Richard Morgan’s book of the same name. People in this world can backup their consciousness inside “stacks”, devices that fit snugly between the skull and the spine. This way, the ultra-rich, also called Meths, can move their consciousness in different bodies, called “sleeves”, and thus never die.
The protagonist is Takeshi Kovacs (played by Will Yun Lee), an Asian and a former member of an organisation that was fighting against the new world order that would be dominated by the higher classes, because of the newly invented “stacks” and the immortality they provide. Kovacs (now Joel Kinnaman) wakes up after 250 years in a world he was fighting against. He is the property of the richest man in the world, James Purefoy’s Laurens Bancroft, who has charged him with solving his “murder”. If he can do that, he will win his freedom and a small fortune. If he doesn’t, well…In his quest to solve this murder mystery, Takeshi makes a few friends and a lot of enemies. There is a Police Lieutenant, Ortega, played by the driven Martha Higareda. Ortega is interested in Takeshi as he is wearing the sleeve of her dead boyfriend. Then there is Bancroft’s wife, who has her own motives to hamper the investigation and makes ample use of her feminine charms to do that. There is also an AI hotel manager modelled after Edgar Allan Poe, and one of my favourite characters in the show.
First few minutes in, you notice how incredibly good-looking Altered Carbon is. The neon-hued cityscapes seem to be bathed in an unearthly glow. Though the colour palette is vivid and visual style is flashy, the world of the show remains detailed and meticulous throughout. This is Blade Runner 2049 on steroids. Altered Carbon looks suitably futuristic and sometimes feels even a little psychedelic.
The show offers a lot of fun. The pace is breakneck, so much so that multiple things seem to be happening simultaneously. The world, probably because of the money and the stunning and subtle visual touches, seems lived in, and this is despite the lack of spoon-feeding in terms of world-building. The action scenes are spectacular, particularly one (that you should not miss) in which multiple naked women fight Ortega. If you perceive television as purely a visual medium, you cannot go wrong with this show. The acting is also pretty good. Even Kinnaman does a fine job, although his limited ability to emote is more manifest in this demanding role. Purefoy is, well, classic Purefoy. He is the same flamboyant Roman General Antony of HBO’s Rome, presiding over the unwashed proletariat, and I am glad.
Where Altered Carbon slips up is the philosophical implications that it strangely chooses to gloss over. I was especially interested in how the show dealt with immortality and how it affected people. Sadly, it did not go beyond the superficialities. It is a fact that death shapes us. As teens, we are full of hope about our professional and married life. After marriage, we hope for children. After our career ends, we wish for a comfy retirement. And life goes on… until it does not. Somewhere inside our mind, our impending death continues to affect our actions. So what would happen if you could download your consciousness into a device before your death, and wake up in a new body with your old memories? How will that change humanity? After living for hundreds of years, what kind of a person you become? Do you even stay human?
Perhaps I am being too harsh. After all, not every sci-fi show has to be as profound as, say, Westworld. And make no mistake, Altered Carbon, apart from uneven plotting around the middle and some really inane writing, improves significantly later on and its last three episodes are absolute corkers. This show looks great and provides plenty of entertainment, and would please everybody who loves Blade Runner, and cyberpunk in general. Only, I cannot get this out of my head that there was so much it could have done, all things considered.