Binge-Worthy: Death is not the end
MANILA, Philippines – They say our bodies are temples, but in the world of Altered Carbon, the latest prestige series from Netflix, bodies are rental apartments that can be discarded and replaced at a moment’s notice. Set around 300 years in the future, the show introduces the cortical stack, an implant at the base of a person’s neck that holds the sum of their personality and memories. When a person dies – or more accurately, when a person’s body (colloquially called a sleeve) dies, their consciousness can be transferred to a new body, or "resleeved."
Having the stack doesn’t mean automatic immortality for regular people, though. Sleeves are an expensive commodity, and those who cannot afford a new or appropriate body may have their consciousness put on sleep mode purgatory... or worse. In the show’s first episode ("Out of the Past"), a little girl who was killed in a hit and run accident is resleeved in a middle-aged woman’s body. The old sleeve is the only spare body insurance could provide. A person can also be put to sleep for hundreds of years as punishment, only to wake up in a totally unfamiliar sleeve.
The second scenario is the one Takeshi Kovacs (played by Joel Kinnaman, and at times by Will Yun Lee) finds himself in at the start of the series. But while most plebs have no choice but to settle for less-than-ideal sleeves, Takeshi is resleeved in the human equivalent of an Abrams tank. The pricey new sleeve is totally jacked and retains its fighting muscle memory, factors that would later prove useful to Takeshi, a former marine and revolutionary fighter.
Takeshi was revived by Laurens Bancroft to investigate his own murder. Bancroft is a Methuselah, or an upper one percenter among upper one percenters. Meths can afford the best bodies, and often clone themselves to maintain their physical identities through numerous resleevings. Bancroft has no memory of the final hours of his life, which is why he needs Takeshi to fill in the missing details.
Cyberpunk’s not dead
If that premise seems like it came out of the neo-noir detective playbook, that’s because it did. Altered Carbon is beholden to the noir and cyberpunk conventions that came before it. The constant brooding, the oppressive urbanization – it’s all here. Even the individual episode titles are pulled from classic noir thrillers. (The aforementioned "Out of the Past" is named after a Robert Mitchum movie)
Many of the characters also fit the classic cyberpunk archetypes. There’s the the femme fatale (Laurens’ wife Miriam Bancroft, played by Kristin Lehman); the urban samurai/ronin (Reileen Kawahara, played by Dichen Lachman); and the badass cop (Kristin Ortega, played by Martha Higareda).
Much like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Altered Carbon’s Bay City is a neon-choked dystopia. Even within the confines of its genre, Altered Carbon manages to craft several memorable set pieces, such as Bancroft’s cloud-scraping Suntouch House, and a Golden Gate bridge encrusted with container vans. But by far the best location is the Raven hotel, Takeshi’s residence for the duration of the series. The place is managed by an AI Edgar Allan Poe who happens to be both the hotel’s manager and the hotel itself. (Think Fiddler’s Green from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics.) This Poe is chipper and eager to aid Takeshi in any way he could – especially if it includes deploying ceiling-mounted miniguns.
The plot is driven forward by Takeshi’s investigation, with several subplots woven into it. A few of these threads are weighed down by pacing issues, such as Takeshi’s partnership with Vernon Elliot (played by Ato Essandoh). Vernon has the greatest personal stakes in the show, but does little beyond glower during the first half.
Takeshi’s investigation gradually reveals layers of conspiracies surrounding Laurens Bancroft, his family, and the government. At times, the show can get so convoluted, it makes Orphan Black look tidy and trim in comparison. It isn’t until the last 3 episodes that Altered Carbon locks back into focus and weaves all those threads together.
Undead and Loving It
Altered Carbon is unapologetically tropey. But one of the its surprises is that when the Meths are front and center, Altered Carbon is basically a vampire show. Methuselahs are immoral and amoral in ways that would make Lestat proud.
If legacy is the ultimate achievement for moneyed mortals, what does someone strive for when they could practically live forever? In the case of Meths, it’s simple: the goal of living is to luxuriate in excess and depravity. And when actions bear no real consequence, these appetites intensify to truly sociopathic levels. How else could a place like Head in the Clouds, a giant airborne brothel, exist? Up there, the elite can indulge in the Iridium Experience – which gives them a chance to real-death their victims. (Lower-level brothels “only” offer sleeve death; anyone killed by their john is simply given a new body.) Meths are even venerated as gods by the very people they prey upon. So, yeah. Vampires.
As compelling and harrowing as the portrayal of Methuselahs gets, Altered Carbon is at its best when it shows how resleeving relates to common folk. Meths grow an endless succession of new, perfect bodies. That’s only interesting for about five minutes.
In Episode 4 (“Force of Evil” – title borrowed from the 1940s crime drama), Officer Ortega celebrates Día de los Muertos with her family. She brings an unexpected guest – her abuela, long-dead, but now resleeved in the only body Ortega could find – that of the thug she recently killed. Abuela suffers no psychological trauma after the resleeve. On the contrary, she seems to enjoy her new body, facial tattoos and all. She even jokes about being able to pee standing up. But the rest of Ortega’s family are devout Neo-Catholics. They appreciate the presence of their abuela, but believe resleeving is an affront to God’s plan. In a later scene, the grandmother asks Ortega to finally put her down, and never call her back. “No matter how long you live, you never finish,” the grandmother says in the most poignant scene in the entire series.
Altered Carbon suffers from pacing issues and sometimes buckles under the weight of its own ambition, but it still manages to create a world that is worth exploring and revisiting. Don’t forget to bring your Hello Unicorn backpack. – Rappler.com