Netflix’s latest blockbuster offering, Altered Carbon, is a lot. Like, a lot a lot. That should be no surprise, considering the many-layered upcoming series’ premise: an interstellar super soldier-turned-freedom fighter wakes up over 200 years after being mentally imprisoned, or “put on ice,” for countless acts of alleged treason and murder. The only reason our hero, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), even finds himself alive in a time he can no longer recognize is due to the fact one of the richest, oldest men alive, 300-something-year-old Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), wants Kovacs, with all of his special skills, to solve his murder.
Yes, Laurens was straight-up murdered, but is still somehow alive enough to demand an Envoy, or an ancient special ops warrior, is brought back from the metaphorical dead to figure out who offed the multi-billionaire (trillionaire? Quadrillionaire?). I told you Altered Carbon is a lot. Considering everything the surface-level sci-fi drama actually is, the only way to fairly assess the Kinnaman-led show is by breaking down all the genres it actually covers. So, let’s get to it.
Futuristic Sci-Fi Romp
Even a quick glimpse at Carbon will lead you to believe this is the Netflix show’s strongest flavor. After all, the drama’s entire backbone falls on one of the most sci-fi questions of all, which is what will happen if we could never die? Carbon, based on a book series of the same name by Richard Morgan, figures out how that would even be possible, thanks to the idea of a “stack,” or, a spinal implant that saves your entire consciousness in a handy little device. Even when your body dies, your stack can be implanted into another “sleeve,” or man-made body.
That’s why a biracial Japanese-Slavic Kovacs, whose stack was frozen for over 200 years as punishment for attempting to overthrow the government, can come back to life as a hulking white man who looks a whole lot like That One Guy From RoboCop.
Once Kovacs is awake again, we’re taken on a stunning, but sometimes shallow, adventure through 2300s San Francisco, now renamed Bay City and as bleak as a mechanical Gotham. Cars fly, entire seedy, gray neighborhoods pulse on the Golden Gate Bridge, and the impossibly long-living and wealthy among us — called “meths,” like the elderly, Biblical Methuselah — live high in the sky to avoid the unwashed masses slithering below the crowds.
None of this legitimately ranks as things we haven’t scene before, but in a world devoid of Game Of Thrones and Westworld, that doesn’t mean it’s not all dazzling.
Visually Stunning Sex Thriller
Speaking of Carbon’s aesthetic preferences, boy, is it obsessed with sex. There’s quite a lot of casual full-frontal male nudity and it seems star Joel Kinnaman was contractually obligated to toss off his shirt, or much more, in nearly every episode. Yet, even with all of this higher-than-usual interest in the male form, the Netflix adventure’s true visual tick is its ‘round-the-clock habit of leering at women’s bodies, usually when they’re full-frontally nude. One especially egregious example of this theme is Miriam Bancroft (Kristin Lehman), who somehow manages to have visibly pointed nipples no matter the time or which barely-there gown she’s wearing.
Although it is possible Carbon made these choices as a critique of sci-fi’s consistent tendency to exploit women, the sheer amount of nakedness often feels like objectification in itself. It’s hard to avoid that sentiment after seeing a parade of dead or brutalized sex workers, some of whom beg for johns to murder them since they’re fully aware that’s the highest form of pleasure for some customers.
Yes, watching a consensual Kovacs sex scene is fun, but seeing a teenager moan-plead for the sweet release of death later on isn’t.
Hard-Boiled Cyberpunk Noir
While all the sci-fi and sex might be the reason viewers will come to Carbon, the murder mystery is the reason they’ll stay. Watching Kovacs attempt to unravel the murder of Lauren Bancroft is pure old-school noir, futurized by the whiz-bang theatrics of neon-colored cities, technologically enhanced bad guys, and fight sequences we can barely conceive with our puny 2018 brains.
Yet, all the traditional noir components are there, from the feisty dame-slash-love interest, police detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), all the chain-smoking, a cadre of wisecracking sidekicks — the internet is going to love Poe (Chris Conner) — and a conspiracy that’s Bigger Than All This. As television continues to be an industry powered by obsessive fan theories, Kovacs' legitimately compelling investigation into the death of Laurens Bancroft will be the slice of Carbon that will have viewers wildly tweeting and Googling away, and for good reason.
In-Depth Study On The Ills Of Society
You wouldn’t expect to find a progressive meditation on the havoc society’s greatest inequalities will wreak if left unattended, yet, that is what actually what lives at the heart of Altered Carbon. Yes, really. The visually arresting difference between the ethereal highs of the Meth’s massive above-the-clouds pleasure palaces and the gritty streets of Bay City proper alone should send home that message. But, the story’s many twists and turns, and Kovacs’ deep-space backstory, speak to that goal even more.
Now, if only Carbon could have managed that feat without leaving a trail of bloody women behind it.
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