ALTERED CARBON Review: Near Faithful Adaptation of Cyberpunk Novel Entertains With Violence And Sex
In the future no one need fear death. Human consciousness can be digitized and downloaded onto cortical stacks which are plugged into new bodies, called sleeves. Takeshi Kovacs, once an elite soldier called an Envoy, imprisoned for two hundred and fifty years as a criminal, is woken from his centuries old slumber. He has been hired by a wealthy Meth name Laurens Bancroft. Laurens himself is centuries old, he and his family have multiple sleeves in storage, ready to be downloaded at a moment’s notice. However, before Bancroft’s consciousness could be routinely updated to the safety of an orbiting server he was murdered in his own home, erasing the forty-eight hours before that. Bancroft hires Kovacs, promising him wealth and a pardon, if he can solve his murder.
Fifteen years ago showrunner Laeta Kalogridis optioned Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk noir novel Altered Carbon, hoping to make it into a film. Thankfully, that did not happen and with the episodic format Kalogridis now has more time to play with and explore this futuristic world, it's technologies and class structures. Netflix will bow the first ten episode season on Friday, February 2nd. We have been privy to watching the first six episodes of this first season.
Reviewing a show like Altered Carbon, knowing the book, having read it a couple of times since the show was announced, presents challenges. There are expectations that one has when starting to watch the televised version of the show, “Ooh. I wonder what they will do with that?”. While I would not call myself a cyberpunk expert I have read enough material in the genre to have a pretty good grasp of what to expect. Has what I have seen so far meet those expectations? Yes, and no. This should surprise no one.
What Kalogridis and her writing team have done is expand Morgan’s cast of characters. Kovacs is no longer the sole character of focus in the series, as he is the narrator of his stories in the original novel and subsequent books, Broken Angels and Woken Furies. What the writing team has done, and have to do honestly is relax and stretch the narrative so it can last over multiple seasons. They have to flesh out Morgan’s 26th Century future so they have taken some of the smaller plot devices from the original story and given them more time. Supporting characters have more to do, thus more for us to follow along with.
We will start with one change that is something simple but really cool, I think. The artificial-intelligence-run hotel Hotel Hendrix has become The Raven. The hotel’s AI, Poe, is a welcome expansion character, and not just for horror literature nuts. Never fear, The Raven is just as capable of protecting its guests from unwanted visitors as the Hendrix was in the early chapters of Morgan’s book. Mostly a disembodied voice in the novel we get a digitized proprietor in the visage of the famed American author complete with 1800s fashion sense.
Officer Kristen Ortega’s role has grown as well to include her family, who are devout Catholics, which makes mentioning Resolution 653 and the devout’s refusal to be resleeved much easier to do, and more often. Seeing as how Resolution 653 is a key part of the story it is worth reminding viewers about it often because it does come into play by the end.
Vernon Elliot, barely a blip on Kovachs' radar in the books sees that his part in the story has been expanded to that of some sort of sidekick, and the fate of his daughter Lizzie plays up most of the virtual reality content in the show, so far as we have seen.
I want to write about Quellist Falconer and Reileen Kawahara but I would like to refrain from dropping spoilers about those characters. I am eager to know, after watching this first season what fans of the book think of the changes in their character arcs. I understand too, that my reaction is based on only the first six episodes.
The battle of Innenin is hardly mentioned and I think it damn well is worth mentioning because, again, it plays an important part in how the story of Altered Carbon plays out in the book. It haunts Kovacs, the ghost of Jimmy, but it also boosts the cyberpunk quotient because of what happened during the battle. There is very little jacking in, limited use of the virtual world. Neurochem, a key feature of the sleeve Kovacs was downloaded into, is mentioned briefly - the essence and functions of the sleeves is mentioned sparingly, something that stood out a lot on Morgan’s book(s). Kovachs’ prologue, two hundred and fifty years prior to where the story begins, does show off sleeve capabilities then, but its sorely missed throughout the rest of the episodes. Cyberpunk is more than flying cars and constant rainfall.
Presenting the show on Netflix allowed Kalogridis to go for the hard R and include as much violence, sexuality and profanity as is allowed. Instead of languishing under cable network restrictions, though there has been some loosening up in recent years, there is still a lot of objectionable content in Altered Carbon that would have to have been cut out had it played anywhere else.
You can look forward to top tier swearing and excellent gore in the action scenarios. Each episode is good for one action set piece. Some of the hand-to-hand is spatially restricted and edited to hell but the gore and violence more than makes up for it. If you want someone to die forever, what they call Real Death, then you have to extract and destroy the cortical stack. Or, simply destroy it while its in the body. It's just more fun that way. There is some pretty great RD scenes in these first episodes though we have yet to see a Sunjet Particle Thrower be used for one.
Then there is the sex. Pending how much the acting talent is willing to show on screen a delightful and impressive amount of nudity in the show including a moment of full frontal nudity, which resulted in one audible exasperation from this reviewer. I say good day to you, sir (you’ll see).
I’m not. But if I were. When you see... it. Jeepers.
Production values are through the roof. It is likely no mistake that the landscape looks a bit Blade Runnery, given that the 1982 movie was the benchmark of futuristic conceptualization. It makes it easier to accept this world, with this built in familiarity. We don’t have to waste time wrapping our heads around what Altered Carbon’s future looks like when we have already seen it. On the ground its bleak, wet, and miserable. Up in the clouds with the Bancrofts and other wealthy elite, its just missing the rainbows and unicorns, otherwise it is idyllic luxury comfort. Reported to be one of Netflix’s most expensive series ever, I consider it money well spent. As popular fictional philanthropist John Hammond once said, “We spared no expense”. When watching the first six episodes a thought kept coming back to me, “Imagine how shit this would look if it only had network/cable television funding?”.
Both Joel Kinnamen as Takeshi Kovacs and Martha Higareda (Kristin Ortega) are very good in their roles. Kinnamen has the DGAF attitude down pat while Higareda is scrappy and persistent in her role as the Bay City police officer. James Purefoy and Kristin Lehman balance out the four key leads as Laurens and Miriam Bancroft. Both use their unique means of persuasion (wealth or sexuality) to shift the narrative as much as they can. The supporting cast is good, particular attention I feel, must be given to Chris Conner as the Raven’s AI Poe. How good of an Edgar Allan he is I will leave to the more devout horror fans but I find the character, in its expanded role, to be delightful as it provides comedic breaks in the hardboiled tension of this neo noir story.
My experience with the first six episodes was a tale of conflict between expectations and necessity on behalf of the production. The expansion of some character arcs, I understand, help bring focus to keep plot points that will make sense when the mystery of Bancroft’s murder has been solved. The more embellished key supporting characters are the more there is to talk about, the more time taken to do that, okay, start filming season two already.
There are two character arcs though, that, as a fan of the book(s) I do not like because, right now, the show appears to have lost one key element of surprise later in the story for Kovacs, and also a pretty big act of betrayal as far as he would be concerned. But maybe, as future seasons roll on (if the show resonates with fans of the book(s) and those just looking for some solid sexy, violent neo noir sci-fi) Kalogridis and her team will find a way to bring that around.
Altered Carbon nearly meets all of my expectations and hopes in regards to the adaptation of the source material. Kalogridis and the production have done a bang up job of bringing Morgan's violent neo noir future to life. Kinnamen, Higareda and the rest of the cast embody the characters as I envisioned them. I look forward to completing the first season, then perhaps starting over, seeing if my opinions change once I have seen all that Kalogridis and company wanted to cover in this first season.