Altered Carbon: Mesmerizing Cyberpunk
I’ve been a fan of cyberpunk ever since I saw Bladerunner in the 80s. I was very young then and didn’t fully grasp many of the concepts, but it still had an impact on me. In the late 90s, I saw it again and ended up buying it on VHS in 1999. I’ve always loved technology, I work as a web developer, I like electronic music, so naturally I’ve got a thing for these kind of films.
A good cyberpunk films thinks things through, the cause and effect of the various technological and sociological concepts used throughout the films are almost always very well fleshed out. Some would say that’s the hallmark of any well written story, but most films never reach that level, either because things are dumbed down for mass delivery to all audiences or pieces are left out intentionally for artistic reasons. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But it’s refreshing to watch something that has every bit of every byte accounted for.
Altered Carbon will likely be considered a classic in the future. It obviously didn’t define the genre, but it did refine certain aspects of it. Like any good cyberpunk film, the subplots and the things going on in the background are often more interesting than the entire plots of many conventional films.
This series does an excellent job with the gritty noir we’ve come to expect in a good cyberpunk film, and the primary plot device is wonderful: small discs that fit between you vertebrae and the base of your skull that capture the essence of your existence. These devices can be transferred to other bodies (which are called “sleeves”) and you will continue to exist as you did the moment before you were transferred to your new sleeve.
The entire disc concept provides a vehicle for exploring the impact that wealth has on people, and the class structures that are created by it. You get to see how behaviors change when people know they can never truly die (unless their disc is destroyed) The wealthy have their disc contents constantly backed up in the cloud. So even if their discs are destroyed they can still be brought back. They also have clones created, so they can continue to exist in their original bodies. The poor are often left to use bodies that are of different races or even different genders. There are some people who believe in dying and choose to have no disc or ask not to be brought back.
Punishments and torture can be carried out by trapping you inside your disc, removing it from your body, and then creating synthetic worlds for the express purpose of causing pain. There are scenes in which people are killed through torture and then brought back repeatedly. You don’t even have the luxury of dying from torture in this world.
Further expanding on the idea of the discs is the near superhuman capabilities that come from living for 500 years. There are people who have honed their understanding of human nature, physics, and fighting methods to the point where they seem almost telepathic. They know what the person is going to do in the fight because they’ve been in millions of fights. They know where the bullet is going to go before it’s even fired. It’s just a far out, mind-blowing concept; and you get all of this from just that one element of the story.
There’s much more to this series than the discs. I like the attention to details like the fact that almost nobody owns cars anymore, and the cars that do exist are airborne. Why are flying cars important? Just so we can see what happens when bridges are no loner necessary. There are now entire bridge communities that have formed on the unused bridges that connect areas and cities, and they have their own subculture. It’s never really explored, it’s just sort of a background concept. Like I said at the beginning of this review, good cyberpunk has interesting ideas going on in the background all the time, and Altered Carbon delivers.
Then there’s the penises. I’d stop watching this show for all of its penis and dude-butt if it weren’t for the fact that it gave use one of the best fight scenes ever: A woman is fighting with a police officer in her “clone storage facility” and keeps getting killed by the police officer, but since she has her disc data stored in the cloud and they’re in her clone storage facility, she just keeps getting uploaded into a new clone, and so she just keeps fighting in a new body and getting killed over and over again — completely fucking naked. (because clones don’t grow with clothes on, that would be weird) There’s a part during this scene where the camera is swooping around her and she bends over to pick up a sword or something right as it swoops down behind her and you can see everything. It’s too late, you’ve seen it all, and there’s no going back. You now know that this actor has a very nice butthole/taint/vagina. None of this has anything to do with cyberpunk, but it has my vote to become a new defacto standard for all future cyberpunk films. But not if the actor is a dude. I don’t wanna see that.
There’s quite a bit of sexuality in this series. It’s done tastefully, or at least to my tastes. The previously mentioned fight scene was actually really cool (even sans naked girl) and the nudity made perfect sense. But just so we’re clear, this woman being naked would make sense in any context.
There’s an assortment of other concepts throughout the series. Most of it centers around situations that are unique to the discs and the near immortality that they create. There’s plenty of standard cyberpunk stuff like augmented humans, endless advertisements everywhere, the overgrowth of capitalism, and the often very bleak hopelessness of a technological society that’s never able to escape itself for even a brief moment.
Altered Carbon is a thing of beauty.