Netflix’s newest sci-fi series, Altered Carbon, might look and feel like a Blade Runner clone with its artificial humanoid bodies oozing out of bags. But it eschews the melodrama in favor of totally badass action sequences. Love it for the surrealistic action sequences, not the philosophical questions it might ask about existence.
Whether or not you find its Blade Runner-esque world compelling, Altered Carbon offers some of the most visually-impressive sci-fi action since The Matrix.
Despite being a television show with a premise that would be right at home on Syfy, the action sequences feel like total spectacle, especially one particular scene in Episode 1. Every aspect of the CGI and design is absolutely beautiful, from the armor on generic soldiers to the holographic displays most people use.
In the far-future of Altered Carbon, people are able to upload their consciousness to chip-like “stacks” planted at the base of the skull. As long as they remain intact, the stacks can be put into new synthetic bodies even after death. The wealthy, who have easier access to the technology, essentially becoming the immortal demi-gods of human society in a neon-drenched cityscape. Some of them literally live above the clouds. They call them Meths.
The protagonist is Takeshi Kovacs as played by Joel Kinnaman. More accurately, Kinnaman plays a “sleeve” worn by Kovacs’s “stack” 250 years after his most recent death. He’s an Envoy, which is a special kind of super-soldier that underwent extreme mental conditioning to give him total recall, ultra perceptiveness, and the ability to adapt to just about any new situation, including a brand-new body.
He’s brought out of a prison sentence by one of the aforementioned Meths to solve a murder, and very quickly he makes good use of his intense training and otherworldly combat skills.
One of the show’s best action sequences happens in the first episode when Kovacs tries to get a room at an A.I.-run hotel. He’s accosted by a group of gangsters and feigns weakness until he’s able to activate “host protocols” on the hotel. Mini-guns drop from the ceiling, but Kovacs takes out almost half of them with his own hands and feet. And he’s just getting started at this point.
Transhumanist science fiction is all the rage these days. In the past year we’ve seen Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner 2049 bring cyberpunk back into vogue, and Altered Carbon is the next step in an ever-growing trend.
In the wake of whitewashing allegations, the live-action Ghost in the Shell did suffer a particularly problematic twist: Scarlett Johansson’s synthetic Caucasian body housed the consciousness of a dead Asian woman.
Altered Carbon suffers the same fate, but out of dedication to its source material.
The story’s based on a 2002 cyberpunk novel from Richard Morgan by the same name.
What may have felt permissible during a time before the term “woke” was coined, now feels a bit offputting. Kovacs is of Asian descent. Even one or more of his other former bodies was Asian. Yet he’s brought back in the present-day as a white policeman? Joel Kinnaman is a fantastic leading man and handles the action sequences in a spectacular fashion.
But the many flashback scenes featuring other versions of Kovacs with engaging, inherently watchable actors like Byron Mann make you wonder: What if they let Altered Carbon have an Asian male lead?
All that being said, when Altered Carbon comes up as a new option on your Netflix account, give it a shot if you’ve ever been amped up by any fight scene from The Matrix.
Altered Carbon will be released on Netflix February 2, 2018.