The Neo-Noir science fiction thriller Altered Carbon (Season 1, 2018) weaves a story about memory and identity. In this future people have a new kind of mind-body relationship.
This situation has been made possible by technology allowing the storage of the mind and memory using special chips, which can be inserted into different bodies or ‘sleeves’. The ultra-rich own multiple cloned sleeves of themselves and have their ‘mind’ chip backed up, which effectively gives them everlasting life.
But, there’s a downside. These immortals or ‘Meths’ are all-powerful; they dominate business, politics and society and this has led to a dystopia of inequality and corruption.
In enters Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-terrorist who fought against the people developing the new technology, and lost. After a couple of centuries ‘on ice’ he’s brought back to life in a new sleeve to investigate the murder of a ‘Meth’ who’s hoping to find out who killed him. The character who wakes up from a long sleep is a classic fantasy / sci-fi device that takes the protagonist from our world into the future. In Rip Van Winkle (1819) the central character goes to sleep and wakes up in the future. In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) Buck wakes up from suspended animation.
Tonally, Altered Carbon is unabashed pulp fiction with a strong dose of Philip K. Dick. Its over-the-top approach feels enjoyably trashy, but the production values, the quality of the writing and acting are anything but that. There’s something about its approach to the subject that’s reminiscent of a 1980s movie, like Terminator, or a 1990s film like Total Recall. There’s also a manga and graphic novel influence: the over-the-top treatment of some of the torture and sex scenes, and Takeshi’s pink unicorn backpack.
Visually, the film references Blade Runner (the megalopolis), and Metropolis (The ‘Meth’s’ tower rises above the clouds, above the pollution like the Architect’s skyscraper in Metropolis. The ‘Meths’ fantasy architecture is fitted out with every luxury and includes manicured gardens).
Altered Carbon is a true Neo Noir, or cyberpunk story, the Raven Hotel, which provides Takeshi’s base, with its AI manager Poe, personifies techno-goth.
Season 1 of Altered Carbon features two main stories; one of them providing the backstory to the other. As the story unravels, we learn that both are heavily interrelated. And like all Neo Noir there is a femme fatale.
The theme of characters living their lives through avatars was explored in Surrogates, which uses them as a metaphor for not living our real life but living through a virtual experience. It’s an obvious metaphor for the internet and virtual reality. The technology in Altered Carbon is much more sophisticated and plays with the confusion of identity, the classic mind-body problem, and combines it with the technology’s ability to grant the rich the power to escape death, and consequentially taking away the human fear of death. The message is clear: no one is meant to live forever.