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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

Netflix series ‘Altered Carbon’ puts bloody spin on sci-fi

The Channels Art Pages | STAFF REVIEW

Dystopian sci-fi is in, and its newest incarnation, “Altered Carbon,” is a mashup of the genre’s familiar tropes, with more blood, more nudity, and more violence than you know what to do with.

Released earlier this month, the Netflix original series is set sometime in the future, where one’s consciousness can be stored in a “cortical stack,” a vertebra-like disk at the base of the skull. The stack can also be transferred into new human bodies (called “sleeves”) and even backed up if you pay the right price.

The show is cut from the same cloth as the Blade Runner movies and “Black Mirror.” In fact it feels like a patchwork of the two, with strips of “The Matrix” sewn through and tied together with a long CSI-thread of murder mystery.

The show follows an elite soldier named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) who is “spun back” to life in a new sleeve by mogul Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) in order to help Bancroft solve his own murder. Kovacs trudges back and forth between Bay City, a cyber-steampunk metropolis mirroring Ridley Scott’s future LA, and its lavish suburb in the sky where Bancroft and the other wealthy aristocrats live.

Kovacs is a steely, thuggish protagonist who likes to keep his distance, until he gets his hands around someone’s neck. Reluctantly playing along with Bancroft’s schemes, Kovacs goes from being indifferent to slightly less indifferent as the show progresses. It feels late when we finally see his humanity shine through towards the second half of the season, as he solidifies human connections and love interests.

Even as he opens up, Kinnaman plays Kovacs with a certain numbness that characterizes the entire series. In a world where “the only real choice is between being the purchaser and the purchased,” humans deal only in violence and deception.  Bodies and spirits are continually broken, with lots of naked and bloody theatrics (literally naked, bloody people), but without the finality of “real death” there is no renewal or catharsis, just cycles of lust and revenge.

The show’s non-stop bloodletting can seem gratuitous, but then again, those same elements play into the show’s central theme: with immortality and neverending body swaps on the menu, humans get bored and desensitized. Bodies are expendable, and the show never lets us forget it.

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This disregard for the body also lets the series explore philosophical problems surrounding consciousness, identity, and even spirituality, though it does so in a cursory way. The show’s existential interests boil down to the basic problem it poses, which is whether immortality is actually desirable.

“Are we even God’s creatures any longer?” a Catholic asks in an ironically themed Dia de Los Muertos episode. And through the show’s spirit of depravity, reinforced in repeated scenes of blood and bludgeoning, we get our clear answer.

The first season of “Altered Carbon” is streaming on Netflix, with 10 episodes.

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