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REVIEW: Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon Review

Altered Carbon is a Netflix sci-fi series based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.  Season 1 aired back in 2018, with the second, and sadly last, season following in February 2020. The main plot centres around the idea that in the future human consciousness is stored on ‘stacks’ – devices inserted into a person’s neck and that the human body is merely a ‘sleeve’ to be used as a means to achieve eternal life, with people able to swap bodies and have their consciousness stack inserted into a new sleeve whenever they like. The story weaved around this central plot is done to almost perfection in season 1, resulting in one of the best sci-fi series I’ve seen in a long time. It’s just a shame that season 2 doesn’t live up to its predecessor.

Season 1 introduces us to Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee), an envoy soldier who formed part of a resistance army led by Quellchrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldberry). The army were rebelling against the Protectorate, the body governing all planets in the solar system, and also against stacks and eternal life. The rebellion was quashed and Kovacs was eventually arrested, where his stack was placed in cold storage until he is awoken 250 years later in a new body (Joel Kinnaman). Kovacs is woken by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a Meth (the wealthiest citizens in the solar system) who wants Kovacs to investigate his death. While Bancroft has been revived using a previous backup of his stack and a new sleeve, he has no memory of the attack and wants Kovacs to find his murderer, and in return, Kovacs will be pardoned and given sufficient funds to start a new life.

Despite initial reservations, Kovac agrees to investigate. He takes lodgings in an AI-run themed hotel long empty of custom, ran by Poe (Chris Conner), who soon provides Kovacs with much-needed assistance and protection. In the course of his investigation, Kovacs runs into a number of individuals each with their own connection to his case or to the body he’s currently inhabiting including Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), Laurens’ wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman) and Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh). He also delves into his own past, reliving the downfall of the resistance and the loss of his love Quell, as well as dealing with the fate of his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman).

I can’t say much more about season 1 without giving away the story, but it had me hooked from the very start. The first couple of episodes are a little slow but necessarily so, to build the characters, the story and the world of Bay City and beyond. The idea of stacks and sleeves is a brilliant one too, a perfect sci-fi plot that allows the series to raise a number of interesting topics and questions around things like morality and rich vs poor. Most obviously, Altered Carbon takes a lot of inspiration from Blade Runner, but it never once feels like a copy or plagiarism. Instead, it feels like a rather lovingly crafted homage with enough originality to make it stand on its own. The world they’ve crafted here feels incredibly thought out, and aside from some CGI that is a bit sloppy around the edges, everything from the set design to the costumes and the soundtrack is pretty impressive.

Altered Carbon Review

The script might not be perfect and while it offers a few cringe-worthy lines over the run of 10 episodes, any errors are made up for by the unexpected darkly funny moments scattered throughout. The detective story is intriguing and compelling and alongside the violent and gory action scenes, keeps you hooked with all of its twists and turns. It’s helped by the performance of Joel Kinnaman, who manages to pull off this cold, aloof, almost robotic-like soldier who is still emotive when needed without being overly so. I’m sure some might question this sort of performance, but personally, I think it fits perfectly with the character and the central theme. His performance alongside the rest of the cast works so well together in making this an incredibly engaging bit of television. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for season 2 (beware spoilers ahead).

Season 2 picks up 30 years after the end of the first season. Kovacs has been on the hunt for his love Quell after Rei’s reveal that she is still alive. After travelling across the solar system in a variety of bodies, Kovacs is hunted down by Trepp (Simone Missick) who is working on behalf of Meth, Horace Axley (Michael Shanks). Axley lives on Harlan’s World, Kovacs’ home planet, and wants to employ Kovacs as his protective guard and in return promises a new advanced sleeve and the location of Quell. After arriving on Harlan’s World and having been uploaded into his new sleeve (Anthony Mackie), Kovacs discovers Axley murdered with his back-ups destroyed, rendering him ‘real-deathed’ and resolves to investigate. With help from Trepp and Poe, Kovacs’ investigation takes him further into his past than he could ever have imagined, all the while being hunted by ruler Danica Harlan (Lela Loren) and Protectorate Colonel Carrera (Torben Liebrecht).

Altered Carbon Review

With the idea behind sleeves, Altered Carbon has a perfect opportunity to recast roles and bring new actors in to play existing characters. Something that season 2 has ignored however is that despite having a new face, the characters should still have the same personalities and mannerisms, and this is a major flaw in this second series. Kovacs feels overly emotional and yet also one-dimensional, and almost completely different to how we know him. And while I like Anthony Mackie, I don’t think he was right for this role as he just hasn’t been able to embody what Kinnaman brought to the character and this is something where outward appearance is irrelevant. Even Quell and Poe, who are two of the few characters played by the same actor, seem to have had huge personality overhauls.  While Poe’s changed traits may be explained away by the plot, for me this still didn’t explain why something as small as his accent didn’t sound the same either.

Altered Carbon Review

The actors and characters aren’t entirely to blame for such a lacklustre series though. The entire plot has no intrigue or mystery and the detective story we had in the first season is missing completely. Instead what we get is a rather convoluted story tied into Kovacs’ past and the creation of his entire planet and the stacks themselves, and even for a sci-fi, this gets a bit ridiculous. While there are a few twists and turns, they’re either predictable or just not very good. Paired with an even dodgier script and poorer CGI, alongside a world that is very underdeveloped in comparison with its predecessor, season 2 is a huge let-down. Something I’ve said many times, but there is a fine line between not enough information and too much, and season 2 has definitely overstepped the line when it comes to giving us too much. The way season 1 ended was perfect, with just enough intrigue as to Kovacs’ future without leaving us confused, and season 2 has instead just gone too far into a romance and relationship that we didn’t really need to see any more of.

Altered Carbon season 1 is probably the best sci-fi series I’ve seen in quite a long time and had season 2 lived up to these lofty expectations, I’d probably be quite devastated that Netflix hasn’t renewed the show for a third season. However, season 2 was that dull and uninspiring that I’m almost grateful they don’t have a chance to ruin this any further.

Season 1: 5/5, Season 2: 2/5

Altered Carbon (2018) Action, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller | 60min | February 2, 2018 (United Kingdom) 8.0
Writer: Laeta KalogridisStars: Chris Conner, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Dichen LachmanSummary: ALTERED CARBON is set in a future where consciousness is digitized and stored in cortical stacks implanted in the spine, allowing humans to survive physical death by having their memories and consciousness "re-sleeved" into new bodies. The story follows specially trained "Envoy" soldier Takeshi Kovacs, who is downloaded from an off-world prison and into a combat ready sleeve at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, a highly influential aristocrat. Bancroft was killed, and the last automatic backup of his stack was made hours before his death, leaving him with no memory of who killed him and why. While police ruled it a suicide, Bancroft is convinced he was murdered and wants Kovacs to find out the truth.

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Sarah Clapperton
A contract manager moonlighting as a rather discerning film and book critic, with an almost fangirl appreciation for anything made by Christopher Nolan. When I'm not catching up on my latest read or watch, you can usually find me trying out my amateur baking skills - Bake Off here I come!