As with all of my reviews, there are spoilers, but with this series in particular, I’m going to try to keep most of the spoilers very light. This television series is can be considered both cyber punk and detective noir, so while spoiling some of the cyberpunk aspects is inevitable, there’s no need to spoil the murder mystery aspect of the series.
First of all, I have recommended this series to a great many people on my Facebook account, but I did mention to my mother that she would probably hate it. Cyberpunk isn’t for everyone. In talking about this series, knowing a little bit about cyberpunk is helpful. Cyberpunk is science fiction set in a dystopian future in an ultra-urban setting, usually with a great divide between the wealthy and the poor causing an inevitable underground oppositional movement, cyberpunk is almost always violent, and has technology that enhances humans in one degree or another. Bladerunner is one of the best known examples of cyberpunk in film, although there are tons of others.
Altered Carbon hits all of these cyberpunk qualifications, and hits them hard. I’m not always a fan of cyberpunk because of the dark dystopic future and the ultra violence. When humans are enhanced with technology, the options for violence can become extreme which is not always appealing to me, but Altered Carbon, while definitely being violent, has so much more going on that the violence didn’t overwhelm me.
In the Altered Carbon future, humans are backed up on discs called “stacks’ that can be removed from one body and placed into another. They call bodies “sleeves” and the series opens on Takeshi Kovacs being “resleeved” after being killed decades prior. Since human consciousness can be stored on disc, humans can “needle cast” to other worlds, where their consciousness is sent to another planet and then sleeved in a body. This allows for quick travel between worlds, especially for the authorities.
Takeshi Kovacs (pronounced Ko-vach) was serving a very long sentence for his crimes, but this sentence was interrupted when an obscenely wealthy man named Laurens Bancroft (portrayed by James Purefoy) basically purchases him to solve the crime of his own murder. The police think it was suicide, but Bancroft refuses to accept this. In return for working for Bancroft, Kovacs will get a full pardon and a large sum of money. This murder mystery takes us through the entire 10 episode series.
First of all, Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs is wonderful. The camera loves him and he brings heart and humor to the role. Kovacs isn’t always likable and has many hard edges, especially in the first few episodes, but as his history is told and the story moves forward, much of his dislikable behavior makes a lot of sense. He’s the type of character that isn’t really hard hearted, he’s broken hearted and so he has developed an attitude to keep people at bay. Kinnaman is likable even in the moments when Kovacs isn’t and this helped me stay interested.
One of the fun things about the show is that one actor can play many different characters. Actor Matt Biedel gets to play Abuela, a Hispanic grandmother as well as a Russian killer called Dimi the Twin, and a drugged out violent criminal brought into the police station. His portrayal of Abuela is fantastic, and watching him in this role you really believe that he is Kristin Ortega’s grandmother simply in the sleeve of a very scary man. The moments between Ortega and Abuela towards the end of the episode are funny but also poignant – Abuela brought me to tears. Then, in the next episode, he portrays a loathsome underworld figure so well that you forget entirely that he was ever Abuela. (Yes, I know abuela means grandmother, but she wasn’t given any other name in the series or on IMDB.)
Matt Biedel wasn’t even one of the main actors in the cast, but he still brought depth and life to several characters. Many of the actors in Altered Carbon get the opportunity to portray different characters, and Martha Higareda, who mainly portrays Kristin Ortega, has one of the best moments in the series when she gets to portray someone else for a little while. Her performance is amazing and it is the acting that really brings the concept of different people inhabiting a “sleeve” to life. These actors make the sci-fi concepts real and believable.
One of the other aspects of the series that impresses is the setting. The series is simply gorgeous. Bay City is very much a dark and dystopic futuristic city, with the Golden Gate Bridge covered with container dwellings – who needs a bridge when you have flying cars? In this world, the rich live in tall structures high about the city, and these buildings that soar above the clouds are breathtakingly beautiful. Since it took me an episode or two to warm up to Kovacs, the gorgeous setting kept me not only interested but riveted. I normally watch television while scrolling through my phone or laptop, but with Altered Carbon, I simply watched, even upon second viewing.
While I’m sure much of the acting was with a green screen as backdrop, the setting comes alive in a believable way that doesn’t look like CGI. The city below is dark with buildings crowding out the sun which contrasts the rich who live above in beautiful, idyllic surroundings.
One of my favorite characters in the show is Poe, an AI who runs the hotel where Kovacs stays during his investigation. The hotel has an Edgar Alan Poe theme and he brings much humor to the often dry and grumpy Kovacs. Chris Conner is wonderful as Poe and I really hope that season two will have him returning. Honestly, I could watch a show that was just about the adventures of Poe – Conner’s character was that fun.
As stacks can be put into different sleeves, there are several characters who portray Kovacs in addition to Kinnaman. Credited as “Stronghold Kovacs,” Will Yun Lee is Kovacs in many of the flashbacks and is Kovacs’ original sleeve. The scenes with Lee and Dichen Lachman, as his sister Reileen Kawahara, are some of the best in the series. Lee shows us Kovacs’ heart by showing us his past, and he brings so much depth and emotion to the role that you cannot help but care for him. At one point, Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldberry) tells him that he is only pretending to be one of the monsters, and the flashbacks show this to be true. My hope for season two is a lot more Lee – he was truly fantastic.
The way the series ends, it is entirely possible to have season two with an entirely new cast of characters, something I hope they do. Although, Kinnaman was so great in the role, it’d be wonderful if they figured out a way to bring him back in the same sleeve, although if they handed the Kovacs role over to Lee, that would be wonderful, too. I would love to see more of Lee’s Kovacs in the future – he knocked me out he was so good. There are many worlds in this universe to inhabit and many different things to explore.
After finding out that the series was also a book, I read Altered Carbon the book, and the series was better. I almost never like a series better than the book, but the series made a lot of improvement upon the book. They took the concepts and characters and built upon it in a way that I really enjoyed. I tried reading the second novel in the Kovacs trilogy, but quit halfway through, as it wasn’t even close to as good as the first book. My hope is that season two takes a departure from the books and has another noir-type mystery to tell, instead of the war story/artifact hunt that was the second book.
I will say that this series has lots of violence, including violence against women and violence against sex workers. There was one episode centered on Kovacs going into a simulated torture scenario, but luckily the amount of torture scenes was low as the episode included flashbacks to Kovacs’ past much more than they showed the torture aspect of things. So be forwarned about the violence in advance. That said, between the exceptional story, acting, and special effects, this series definitely is an A.