It’s hard to go wrong with cyberpunk. Grittiness, violence, futuristic technology, and the opportunity to create beautiful, CG-created cinematographic shots? That sounds like a surefire win. In most of these regards, Altered Carbon delivers mightily. The visuals are, at times, simply astounding, with massive sweeping shots of brightly lit neon architecture, standing in stark contrast to the violence on display. And there certainly is violence, some scenes being rather hard to watch, even for the more seasoned viewers out there. The brutality on display manages to toe a line, however, and it doesn’t extend into the absolutely ridiculous (that often). At its best, the violence (and nudity, which is also quite prevalent) serves to keep one interested, which is good, as the story, which meanders aimlessly at times, provides no favors in that department.
In this world, death is essentially a thing of the past, having been phased out by new technologies. When a person dies in this universe, their consciousness can be transferred into a different body (known as “resleeving” in the show), leading to a form of eternal human life. However, even with this new technology, equality is certainly not present, as competition for access to the highest-quality sleeves (e.g. those that are young, attractive, and athletic) is tight, with the richest people having a monopoly over the most desirable ones. While this idea of a transfer of consciousness is certainly not a new idea in the realm of science fiction, Altered Carbon pulls it off with a layer of depth that is lacking from some other more recent science fiction installments, with the ethical modalities involved being explored to a great extent. That being said, this depth can often veer off into the overwhelming, and there are times when watching where you have to pause just to reflect on who the characters are and what exactly is going on. If you stick with it, however, you’ll be treated with a story that eventually comes together nicely (with a very tidily written second season). You eventually realize that a great allure of the show can be found in a sort of viewer detective work, where the audience is challenged to figure out the significance of certain events in relation to the overarching plot.
The quality of Netflix’s original series has been, for the most part, consistently excellent on the visual end, and Altered Carbon is no exception. It’s really got everything that a fan of science fiction or cyberpunk could want: Flying cars, menacingly tall skyscrapers, and big laser guns that blow off people’s heads. Think of Blade Runner 2049, but add a much bluer color palette, and subtract Ryan Gosling.
Interesting as it may be, the show certainly does have some flaws, and they mainly come in the form of how it tells its story. It certainly doesn’t lack ambition, as it touches on a variety of topics, ranging from inequality to the very nature of who we are as people, and it coats all these very contemporary issues with a futuristic sheen, rendering everything simultaneously familiar and foreign. As it spins the more personal tale that it is trying to tell, however, you can’t help but shake the feeling that over the first half of the season, the majority of the essential exposition and plot points being delivered could have been shelled out in the better part of an hour. Characters dwell on topics that later turn out to be inconsequential, there are conflicts that emerge that never are fully resolved, and many of the side plots seem to simply bog down the main thrust of the story, which is often excellent.
As mentioned before, however, the show is worth watching simply for it’s cinematic presence. Some of the shootouts and fights are truly impressive, and deliciously frenetic. The acting is also at a very high standard, as a variety of standout performances are displayed, with special note given to the lead Joel Kinnaman, who provides a riveting performance.
Story issues aside, Altered Carbon is a show that can be recommended to a wide audience. Intense and engaging, the majority of people will have no problem happily binging their way into the cyberpunk universe that the directors have created.