Altered Carbon review: This Netflix show is an uneven but trippy ride, with sci-fi thrills and existential angst

Pradeep Menon

Feb,05 2018 12:20 57 IST

3.5/5

At some point while watching Altered Carbon, you will find yourself mired in existential conflict. What if your consciousness could be stored digitally, and you could live forever? Would you even want to live forever? Is this what the world is heading towards?

Then again, apart from any philosophical quests your hyperactive brain chooses to undertake, it's also possible that what you take away from the newest big Netflix original are some breathless sci-fi thrills and action.

Here's the thing about Altered Carbon: It is set in a world so far removed from ours, that it often feels like a show for hardcore science fiction buffs only. But you give it enough time, and you realise that there's a whole lot more to take away from the show than what is immediately apparent.

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A still from Altered Carbon.

Altered Carbon is set in the distant future, one where technology has evolved so much that a person isn't dependent on the body they are born with, to live forever. A person's consciousness can be downloaded, stored and 're-sleeved' into another body, provided you have the means to afford it. If not, then after your death you are either put away in limbo, or re-sleeved into the first available body.

In such a future, the show tells the story of a deceased rebel brought back to life two and a half centuries after his death, by one of the wealthiest, most powerful men alive, to solve a murder - the latter's own, no less. All of this is revealed in the first episode itself, and that's probably what helps the show the most - its largely brisk pace and familiar genre tropes housed in an uber-slick, richly detailed universe.

Based on a popular book by the same name, the show has a lot of what brought the book cult success - it's a breezy tale with twists to keep you hooked, and a plot that goes the distance because of the uncomplicated narrative style, peppered with some thoroughly original themes and sub-plots.

Sample this: In the world of Altered Carbon, Christianity isn't on board with the idea of resleeving a person who dies, because it goes against their religion. This makes Christians nothing more than a resistance splinter group protesting against the establishment, with the aim of doing away with the idea of giving people life after they are dead. Or even the fact that police vehicles have 'raksha karna' (Hindi for 'to protect') stamped on them. (Yes, the Altered Carbon world, for all its flaws, is a far more diverse world than we're used to in our pop culture.)

The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs (played mainly by House of Cards Season 4 star Joel Kinnaman, with action star Will Yun Lee playing his earlier sleeve) makes for an intense, brooding prime mover for the show, torn between the memories and beliefs from his previous life, and this opportunity he has been given to live once again.

What showrunner Laeta Kalogridis manages to do, though, is bring Kovacs alive in a world that has been etched out with intricacy. No matter how far ahead we reach with technology, there's scarce reason to believe we'd be able to achieve a world without the infinite chasm between the haves and the haves-not - and that's one of the key elements of the show.

Embellished with a whole lot of visual showboating - zero gravity fights, no-holds-barred nudity (both male and female), unorthodox and startling torture techniques, and some trippy imagery - the show does suffer because of a cumbersome voiceover and clunky dialogue. This is probably due to the fact that the book is written completely from a first-person point of view - Kovacs', to be precise - so the show needs to fall back on frequent obvious exposition to make certain things clear.

However, it manages to overcome these issues when you dig deeper into it. Some of the most fundamental human concepts - morality, law, karma or even time itself - owe their existence to the mortality of humankind. In a world where that doesn't exist, where you may not even face the consequences of your actions, no matter how violent, and where humans and AI share an interdependent existence, far too many familiar lines begin to blur, as you begin to question what you know about right, wrong, and the path between the two.

Pulpy and intense in equal measure, Altered Carbon may not be the easiest show to binge-watch, and is really not for everyone. But it's also a step up for sci-fi cyberpunk because of how grotesquely glitzy the setting of the show is, and how it straddles the fundamentals of humanity with the fundamentals of a classic whodunit.

Published Date: Feb 05, 2018 12:20 PM | Updated Date: Feb 08, 2018 12:24 PM