While Altered Carbon on Netflix is an adaptation of the 2002 cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan it has undergone some changes for TV and visually seems to owe a hell of a lot to Ridley Scott’s neo-noire interpretation of Philip K Dick’s work in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Also conceptually there are elements of The Matrix and the Wachowski’s source code Ghost in the Shell. I’ll try and avoid major spoilers here, but some minor ones will happen below. You have been warned.
Set in a dystopian future in which interstellar travel is achieved through the transfer of consciousnesses between bodies, it follows Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite soldier turned revolutionary (called an Envoy) turned private investigator. In Season 1, Kovacs is on ice because of his former misdemeanours on Harlan’s World, woken after more than two centuries, he is ‘resleeved’ into the body of a disgraced police investigator to help a Meth (an elite class of super-rich people who are ostensibly immortal by virtue of hopping into new bodies whenever they feel like it) investigate his own ‘sleeve death’ (as opposed to real death or ‘RD’).
Real death would involve having his spinal implant called a ‘stack’ destroyed, but since the meth back themselves up regularly over some clever wireless system he is back on his feet in no time and asking questions about his apparent suicide and some hours of missing memory.
The original Kovacs is played rather woodenly by Will Yun Lee and the resleeved version, who is the main star of the show is played by Joel Kinnaman (who was in the reboot of Robocop). I’d generously call his performance enigmatic and in fact I preferred this version than Anthony Mackie’s version in Season 2. The show is set up rather like Doctor Who in that anyone can potentially play the lead.
There was talk of a law being introduced to allow the stacks of murdered people to be ‘spun up’ even if they had said they didn’t want that to happen for religious reasons. It seems a minor point but it is quite a fundamental part of the plotting – both the concept and the fact that the law was blocked by the Meths.
Kovacs is haunted by his past – both in the form of the ‘ghost’ of his ex-comrade in arms rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer played by Renée Elise Goldsberry and memories of his sister played by Dichen Lachman (who was one of the few cast members I recognised having seen her previously in Dollhouse). Events in his past come back in monumental ways toward the show’s climax and I found it to be a very satisfying collection of well thought out episodes.
Like Blade Runner, show does not paint a pretty picture for the future of women in society – unless they are from the Meth class and it touches on themes of sexual violence in a very direct manner – indeed again this is at the heart of this many layered story. Among the strong supporting cast I was most impressed by Chris Conner’s performance as the AI Poe. Poe runs an Edgar Allen Poe themed hotel called ‘The Raven’ and with him the writers are able to explore sci-fi’s favourite theme – what it is to be human. His performance is the most human of all and makes an interesting counterpoint to Kinnaman’s rendition of Kovacs’ singular will.
Season 2 of the show sees Kovacs return in a new elite combat sleeve which looks uncannily like Falcon from the Marvel films. Anthony Mackie brings some attitude to the role and pulls off some of the rather awful dialogue with slightly more aplomb than Kinnaman but a whole different level of shouting. It grated somewhat to be honest.
Kovacs seems less reflective than his previous incarnation – perhaps because his sister issues were put to bed in Season 1. He’s still hunting for his long lost love Quellcrist Falconer and finds himself back on Harlan’s World to be a bodyguard for a Meth who is killed before Kovacs even climbs out of the pod in his house. The Meth is one of a small group of Founders of the world and it some becomes clear that there is killer on the loose knocking off all the Founders one by one.
Harlan’s World is the planet on which the alien technology that forms the basis of the stacks was found. While an ancient civilisation leaving behind technology that could be used by humankind is a repeated trope of this genre I was again reminded of Philip K Dick’s work – this time with Total Recall. What I really liked is how this technology is deeply rooted inside the planet and had similarities to Cameron’s Avatar.
Season 2 is less layered that the first and it’s good that they didn’t stretch it out over too many episodes. Poe is again a very interesting character especially since the events of the previous season he is suffering from a form of dementia. This could be solved by rebooting himself, but he’s loath to do that because he doesn’t want to lose his memories of a girl he helped in the previous season. Another AI, one of the archaeologists put out to pasture by the ruling elite, helps him try to put his mind back together.
Will Yun Lee gets more screen time in this Season since Kovacs is illegally ‘double-sleeved’ and is sent to fight himself by a colonel from Kovacs’ past who works with Harlan’s daughter, Danica Harlan played by Lela Loren, the governor of the planet. Renée Elise Goldsberry also gets a lot more screen time, as it turns out that she is the one who has been bumping off the Founders.
Danica Harlan is intent on getting her hands on a weapon left behind by the Elders. It’s not really clear what that might be until later in the season where we get a clear picture of what the orbitals that surround the planet are capable of – basically raining down something called Angel Fire which can destroy people and spacecraft much like the space weapon in Akira. By the end of the show the orbitals are all lined up to destroy civilisation on the planet and then Kovacs adds to his legendary status as ‘the last Envoy’.
In the animated film Altered Carbon: Resleeved we see Kovacs some years later in another combat sleeve acting as bodyguard to a young girl who is a tattooist for a Yakuza clan and has a unique skill which makes her the target of efforts by techno-ninjas to kill her.
Its real sci-fi anime fodder of the highest proportions with all the tropes included and when Kovacs is joined by a big-titted police woman with killer combat skills I realise that this wasn’t going to need much brain power to watch. As usual with Japanese anime the voice-overs don’t match the subtitles and there’s much fun to be had in the difference between the two. More fun perhaps than watching the short movie which is pretty formulaic at best.
However, there are a couple of things that make this worth a watch from an animation point of view, despite it doing absolutely nothing to advance Kovacs’ story. Firstly the level of rendering quality in the animation with its distinctive three-dimensional cell-shaded style is exceptionally good. Secondly the direction, choice of shots, ‘camera’ styles and editing is impeccable. There is a real kinetic and visceral quality to the blood-soaked action sequences that make them very exciting even though you know Kovacs will prevail. It makes the like of The Clone Wars animated show look so very basic in comparison and hopefully is a good indication of what the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell series might look like.
if you’re not an anime fan perhaps give this a miss – even if you’re an Altered Carbon fan because it really adds nothing to the legend.