This Altered Carbon review contains spoilers.
Altered Carbon Episode 1
It must have been a daunting task bringing Altered Carbon to the small screen. Explaining the complex process of putting Takeshi Kovacs into a new body 250 years after his death so that he could solve the alleged murder of the still-living man who brought him back could easily have become heavily expository and confusing, but this premiere episode brings its cyberpunk premise into sharp focus while offering up killer action sequences and a beautiful futuristic backdrop.
How did they do that? There’s seriously a lot of jargon to learn in “Out of the Past.” Nevertheless, the hologram lady at the prison explains the concept behind digital human freight, or DHF, which is stored in a cortical stack installed at the base of every Protectorate citizen’s skull at age one, enabling humans to cheat death by “spinning up” into new “sleeves” and making bodies sound like disposable commodities. Oddly, the audience simply nods, takes it all in stride, and we’re off to the races.
The little touches are what really enrich this gritty, neon future and make it feel real. When Takeshi Kovacs awakens, for example, we know that his quick adjustment to his new body and Joel Kinnaman’s almost inhuman six-pack abs make him unique, but when the seven-year-old girl who died an untimely death is reunited with her parents in the body of an older, scruffy-looking prisoner, we immediately understand that the average citizen doesn’t get any special consideration when receiving a new body.
This provides a context for when Kovacs meets his benefactor, the wealthy, ageless “Meth,” Laurens Bancroft, who clearly benefits from his station by having a 48-hour backup of his DHF, allowing him to live on despite a mysterious murderer destroying his stack. Another enticing detail comes about when Kovacs, who hallucinates moments from his past, mentions to a vision of his sister, “They took over, like she said they would,” indicating they went to war to prevent people like Bancroft from existing as well as the class structure that makes the system inequitable.
Clearly, the label of “terrorist” is subjective. Kovacs, as we see in the flashbacks when Will Yun Lee is portraying him, is definitely capable of violence. Indeed, his status as “Envoy” appears to mean he was bred for it. But the glimpses of Quellcrist Falconer (the “she” from the quote above), who is more than just an historical figure to Kovacs, perhaps paint her unfairly as the Osama Bin Laden-type leader of a long-ago uprising. This will no doubt be explored further throughout Altered Carbon, but here these details serve to form our picture of the show’s antagonist.
It’s a good thing, too, since Kovacs is fairly one-note otherwise, at least in this premiere. Part of his military background likely comes with a certain amount of emotional detachment, but his unflappable, action hero persona doesn’t use the full scope of Kinnaman’s acting ability that fans of The Killing were treated to. In fact, many of the other key characters introduced in this episode, including Lieutenant Ortega of the Bay City Police Department, who is suspicious of Bancroft’s motives in reviving an Envoy, have only vaguely sketched out personalities. This is a typical pilot problem.
It was nice to see two favorite Dollhouse alums in “Out of the Past.” Dichen Lachman as Takeshi’s sister will hopefully return in future episodes, either in flashbacks or otherwise. Tahmoh Penikett (although his character may be re-sleeved next time we see him) was great as the mercenary hired by god-knows-who to kill Kovacs. Penikett’s scene in the A.I. hotel was perhaps the most darkly comedic of the episode, giving us a glimpse of Kovacs powers of perception and fighting skills. The pink unicorn backpack full of drugs was also a nice touch.
The Altered Carbon premiere gives us a nice introduction to several threads viewers immediately want to know more about: who killed Bancroft, who is after Kovacs, and what is this amazing world we’ve been dropped into all about? “Out of the Past” was everything it needed to be for television’s first real attempt at a cyberpunk adaptation. Anyone who was able to resist going right into the next episode on Netflix or binging the series outright has more willpower than most.