Altered Carbon plunges us into a pseudo-philosophical, cyberpunk vision of the future, one clearly inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, and the Wachowskis, but pulling primarily from the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. This is Netflix throwing its weight into action-heavy, high-budget TV sci-fi, anchored by another solid performance from The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman and an intriguing mystery at its center. It’s a fast-paced premiere, one that presents the basic tenets of this world along with some very impressive visuals, while not skimping on the “look, we’re not on network TV!” levels of nudity and violence. In other words, Altered Carbon promises something ambitious right off the bat. We’ll soon find out if it delivers on those promises.
“Out of the Past” opens with a body seen floating from below, intercut with someone else showering. We will learn that they are the same person, even though they don’t physically look the same. They are both Takeshi Kovacs, a highly-skilled assassin known as an Envoy. The Takeshi in the shower is in the relatively near-future, and he’s about to be set upon by a dozen heavily-armed men. He takes a few out, but they kill his partner and then blow him to bits. But in this future, the body is just a shell. People can be “re-sleeved,” their memories and personalities kept in a “stack” at the top of their spine. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen to Tak.
Around 250 years later, Kovacs wakes up in a very different “sleeve.” After showering off the slime from his new body and grossly pulling the tube from his esophagus, he undergoes orientation and we learn more about this world and this process. He may suffer from hallucinations for a bit, and the best way to really kill someone is to blow out their cortical stack. These scenes feel a bit too explanatory for my taste: It would have been nice to start the show a bit more mysteriously. (The word “sleeve” is pretty self-explanatory, if you think about it.) But do we get glimpses of the show’s deeper moral questions We see a family startled that their seven-year-old is now in the sleeve of a middle-aged woman, as well as protests in front of the clinic against the very concept of sleeving. As you might imagine, religion doesn’t sit well with reincarnation on demand. In fact, the Church has decreed that re-sleeving immediately condemns a soul to hell, even if that re-sleeving is to tell the cops who murdered you. Tough.
So, why has a legendary Envoy like Takeshi Kovacs been re-sleeved? It turns out he’s essentially now the property of a very rich man named Laurens Bancroft, played with appropriate sleazy charm by James Purefoy. An officer named Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) is driving Tak to his new “master,” allowing for some noirish dialogue and a good look at this Blade Runner-esque world. They hover above the rainy, cold city to a house in the sky. Blue sky and sunshine above; clouds and rain below. It’s a caste system not unlike Snowpiercer, but vertical instead of horizontal. The rich build homes in the sky to avoid the clutter of common man.
After a brief scene in which we meet Laurens’ wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman) and the troubled son of the Bancroft line, we get the first one-on-one between Tak and Laurens, and the real mystery kicks in. Laurens wants Tak to solve his own murder. He’s still alive because he backs up his stack to a satellite every 48 hours. Ten minutes before a backup, Laurens was shot, or shot himself. The cops believe it was the latter, but something doesn’t look right. If he wanted to be dead, he would be. At first, Kovacs isn’t interested. Why help a member of the futuristic one percent? He’ll just go back on ice. But he’ll have some fun first.
Back on the ground, Kovacs has a vision of his sister, played by the always-welcome Dichen Lachman. What’s to live for? Kovacs goes on a bit of a bender, reaching sensory overload from a world with virtual-reality ads that appeal directly to him. In the chaos, he sees an ad for the Raven Hotel, and that’s where he ends up after being saved from the chaos by Officer Ortega, who has clearly taken an interesting in this strange newcomer. First, they chat at a strip club, and he reveals one of his nicknames used to be Icepick. They talk about the case, and there appears to be an old personal grudge between Ortega and Bancroft. Eh, Kovacs still can’t quite care.
Then he gets to the Raven, where he meets a charming A.I. named Poe (Chris Conner) — as in Edgar Allan Poe. Poe promises food, view, private entertainment, and “no fantasy beyond reach.” Just as Kovacs is about to pay, he has a gun pointed to his neck by a killer played by Tahmoh Penikett of Battlestar Galactica fame. Kovacs figures out that he needs only to pay for his room to get “every amenity” of the Raven, including protection. He does so and turrets drop from the ceiling, as Poe himself grabs a shotgun and starts blasting. Kovacs wants to know who sent the killer, but he gets destroyed. Ortega reveals that this assassin was double-sleeved in a twin, which means we’ll likely see Penikett again. Why would a dozen people want a nobody like Tak Kovacs dead? There’s gotta be something to the Bancroft murder case after all. And he’ll have to take it to find out why so many people want him dead. He may be alone, but he has visions of his former partner, telling him to “finish the mission.” It’s more like he’s just getting started.
• Curious about the song that played over the final scenes? It’s “The End” by Daughter.
• Did the hotel shootout remind anyone else of Bioshock? With all those turrets and jazz music, it felt like an action sequence straight out of that landmark game.
• Penikett and Lachman haven’t shared any scenes yet, but they did back on the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse if you’re wondering where you’ve seen them.
• “Out of the Past” was written by show creator Laeta Kalogridis, who penned Oliver Stone’s Alexander and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.
• The premiere was directed by a notable TV veteran, Miguel Sapochnik, who has directed four episodes of Game of Thrones, along with True Detective and Fringe.
• I love the tone-setting of the opening credits with the snake eating itself, both as a philosophical commentary on the cyclical nature of identity in this vision of the future and as a reminder of medical science gone awry, since it resembles the Caduceus.
• After each episode, I’ll recommend a sci-fi movie I thought of while watching it. Of course, this one’s got about a dozen, so let’s stick with one I already mentioned that you may have missed: Bong Joon-ho’s great Snowpiercer.