Richard K. Morgan Meets Phillip K. Dick
Altered Carbon (2018 Netflix)
"Ignore Your Assumptions, Don't Trust Anything"
With an opening line like that, Netflix’s highly underappreciated Sci-Fi epic Altered Carbon starts with a mission to demonstrate why it's a perfect series for fans of all genres.
Set in a distant future where all human consciousness has become entirely digitised and stored in a technology called the stack, contained within each person’s 'stack' lies their Digital Human Freight (DHF). DHF is their personality. Their memory. The very things that make them human. The dark twist? The human body is now referred to as a ‘sleeve’, a husk for the wealthy to clone and for the poor to desperately try and replace.
The story focuses on Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a highly trained soldier who’s stack has remained 'sleeveless' for 250 years. Suddenly, he finds himself inside of a brand new body and instructed to solve the murder of one of the planet's wealthiest individuals: Laurence Bancroft (James Purefoy.) The genius of the show permits Bancroft to remain an active character within the show, even after finding himself ever so slightly dead. After embodying one of his clones (but having his mind wiped before his death) Bancroft is present, but has no recollection of his fate. With no memory of the event, but a long list of enemies, Kovacs is set up on a mysterious journey, complete with shocking twists and thrilling encounters.
While the story itself is a beautiful mix of Philip K. Dick’s uneasy futuristic warnings and Agatha Christie’s traditional murder mystery, the true stand out feature of Altered Carbon is the immersive world that surrounds the show. Kinnaman's character is an arsehole, but his charismatic sarcasm and mysterious past positions the detective as among the most watchable characters in recent memory. Poe, an Artificial InteIligence acts as one of Kovacs’ close companions and delivers an incredible performance in every scene, thanks to the wonderfully talented Chris Conner. Alongside him, is Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh) an ex-soldier with ties to Bancroft who rather begrudgingly becomes Kovacs’ partner in crime. Finally Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) completes the ensemble as a no nonsense police officer who seemingly wants the same thing as Kovacs himself.
Taking place in Bay City, a dystopic re-imagining of San Francisco, the environment and visuals of the show draw you in, making you feel at home in the cramped and dirty streets of the ground level all the way up to the heavenly world in which the rich reside. Every frame and scene is teaming with life and mixes to create some genuinely stunning shots. Now, beyond compelling characters and satisfying cinematography, you might be wondering "but why should I be watching this show?" Well, I'll tell you. Despite it's sci-fi premise, Altered Carbon is a show for everyone. The sci-fi elements of the plot are grounded enough to feel plausible and the series doesn’t rupture your investment with ridiculous jargon or unbelievable scenarios. The writing is gorgeously sharp and makes you hang on every word, craving interactions and theorising every crazy twist and unexpected turn - and who doesn’t love a good old fashioned mystery? On top of this, Altered Carbon's fight sequences are stunning to watch. Meticulously choreographed in the vein of John Wick or Kingsman, these scenes are fast paced and brutal, thrilling to watch and fraught with danger.
In today’s ever busying world of original streaming shows, Altered Carbon is a breath of fresh air with an original spin on the neon-hues of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. While it’s blockbuster moments will dazzle you, the show remains oddly empathetic and it's moments of quiet reflection on the human condition will engage even the most casual of viewer. It is because of this balance of quality that I find myself going back and re-watching the series time and time again, leading to perhaps the most unique thing I’ve found while enjoying Altered Carbon: the pure quality of repeat viewings. Once the whole story comes together, you’ll find yourself identifying the mastery of its storytelling and noticing all the little details you missed the first time through, rendering Altered Carbon every Easter egg hunter and would-be detective's dream.
Check out the first episode and fall in love with this show just as much as I have and if you do find yourself at a loss after having binged the first season, don’t you worry… the second season premiered at the end of February and offered up another incredible tour de force, keeping the momentum moving and the thrill seeking just as fresh.
Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully, Altered Carbon will be eating as much of your time as it is mine very soon.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England.
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