Review: Altered Carbon

Martha Higareda and Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon is a science fiction series set in a technologically advanced future where people with money and power could choose to never die. That was the central thesis and conflict in the 10 part series from Netflix. The series touched on many other themes, but superficially. I thought the series tried to do too much.

In this future, a person’s consciousness with all their personality and memories, could be transferred from one body – or sleeve – to another. The person’s essence was stored in a jewel-like stack which was implanted in the spine.

Characters might be see in more than one body. The lead male character Takeshi Kovacs was played at various times by Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee and by a couple of child actors. In the present setting of the story, Kovacs is mostly played by Joel Kinnaman. Time is treated fluidly, however. We often see Kovacs in his original human form (Will Yun Lee) as either a flashback or a virtual reality experience.

Kovacs sister Rei is played most of the time by Dichen Lachman as an adult. Rei seems like a minor actor in what’s happening in Kovacs life for most of the series, but when her character’s actions are finally brought forward, it’s big.

The tale opens with Kovacs arriving at a time 250 years after his original death. He’s transferred into a new body. He’s brought into this time and place to solve a murder by the super rich Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Laurens wants his own murder solved. His stack was backed up seconds before he died, so he doesn’t remember the moment of his murder. He’s looking for answers.

Bancroft “owns” Kovacs. His path to freedom is to solve the murder.

The two handiest suspects in this murder are Bancroft’s wife Miriam – a supersexy Kristin Lehman – and his wastrel son Isaac (Antonio Marziale).

Kovacs has skills. He’s an Envoy with special training. He’s touted as the last Envoy, which makes him a unique prize for Bancroft to own.

The female lead, police lieutenant Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), picks up Kovacs and delivers him to Bancroft in an opening scene that shows off the brilliant optics of the world created for Altered Carbon. There are flying cars, multitudes of skyscrapers, cities in the sky, and gritty surface streets filled with noise.

Martha Higareda in Altered Carbon
Martha Higareda as Kristin Ortega

Many actors in this series are Canadian, but Martha Higareda is Mexican. She’s had a successful career in Mexico as an actress, writer, and producer. Since starting to perform in the U.S. she’s had roles in movies like McFarland, USA and spots in shows like Royal Pains, but this is her first leading part carrying a series in the US. She’s brilliant in Altered Carbon. I hope to see her in many additional roles.

The number of actors needed for 10 episodes of this series is large. A few of the most important are Hiro Kanagawa, Tamara Taylor, Matt Frewer, Arnold Pinnock, Tahmoh Penikett, Waleed Zuaiter, Adam Busch, Ato Essandoh, Hayley Law, and Michael Eklund.

Chris Conner in Altered Carbon
Poe IS the hotel

A favorite character for me was Poe (Chris Conner). Poe was an artificial intelligence. He ran a hotel where Kovacs stayed called The Raven. Kovacs was Poe’s first guest in a very long time and he became quite involved in all of Kovacs’ business as the series progressed. Poe’s character was cleverly done and acted. Just call him Eddie.

Renée Elise Goldsberry in Altered Carbon
Renée Elise Goldsberry kicking butt

Another favorite character was Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry). She trained Kovacs and his sister Rei to be Envoys. She taught the Envoys to fight but more than that she taught them to think and survive. Each time Kovacs was under threat or being tortured he would think back to her training to get through it. Kovacs was in love with Quell and thought she died a real death 250 years earlier.

Quell had a particular connection to stacks. Her purpose in training Envoys was to end the practice of transferring stacks into new sleeves. She, and many others, were among those who believed a human should live and die as nature intended. No one with money and power should be able to extend their time artificially through resleeving. Quell didn’t have a particularly religious reason for this fight, but some characters did. Some tied their objections to resleeving to God. Among those characters was Ortega’s fabulous mother Alazne (Marlene Forte).

References to being a believer, God, and the spiritual abuse of never dying were common. Yet there was never any deep moral exploration or discussion about it. It was simply part of the fight, the reason for much of the conflict.

It doesn’t take much imagination to transfer the concept of abuse of power among evil individuals who can live forever to the inequities of our own time and place. Especially with income inequality driving most people into the ground. If those with absolute power are immortal, then who are the gods? Who are the devils? What is human? Can you retain a moral conscience if you live forever?

It was a mystery spiced up with sex and blood. It was a love story. It was a story about love and loyalty between siblings, families. It was a parable about what it means to be human. And all that was wrapped up in cyberpunk trappings to make it look and feel cool.

There was plenty of conflict. Violence pervades the series. Bloody battles, torture scenes, fights, murders: it was everywhere in every episode. There was also plenty of bad language. Nudity was common and sex scenes were graphic. This is not a series for children or even adults who don’t want violence on their TV screens.

The number of women who were manhandled, misused, beaten, strangled, and killed by men seeking pleasure from it deserves comment. Women were a commodity with few exceptions. Perhaps the writers couldn’t imagine a world where men behaved any other way. That’s a problem many people struggle with right now. Luckily some have found a different way of thinking.

Visually, Altered Carbon is well done. The way into and out of virtual reality was clear. The sets and technology looked convincing. However, in sci-fi terms, there wasn’t anything new about it, nothing other futuristic tales haven’t used before. The story, based on a novel by Richard Morgan, benefited from nice plot twists and surprises as we got deeper into it. I wasn’t crazy about the ending, but it did clear up some of the story lines.

If there is a second season, could Kristen Ortega and Quell have the whole thing to themselves?

Did you watch it? What did you think?

3 thoughts on “Review: Altered Carbon”

  1. I watched the first episode last night, and liked some things about it. Joel Kinnamon is a favorite, and I did like the other actors. I’m not a big sci fi person, but the concept of the series is interesting. Visually it’s very compelling. I am just having a hard time with the violence. I have a low threshold for it. The way people are treated is pretty horrific. Although, people are treated pretty horrifically in this world, too, right?

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