Altered Carbon Review

By Martha Sigargök-Martin | Features & Reviews

Feb 14

created by Laeta Kalogridis

Starring Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Conner, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, Renée Elise Goldsberry

Premiered on Netflix on the 2nd of February 2018

First Season, Ten episodes of 46-60 minutes


Based on the 2002 science fiction novel by author Richard K. Morgan, who won the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award in 2003, the story is set in a typical cyberpunk universe.

The following description contains a few SPOILERS, but nothing that could ruin your experience as a viewer.

In the 26th century, humans can live forever. Due to an alien technology people can transfer their consciousness through so-called “cortical stacks” into another body, also called a “sleeve”. The possibility of living forever shapes the society dramatically, as the super wealthiest – the Meths – can afford to store copies/clones of their body and transfer and/or multiply their consciousness endlessly. For normal civilians, “real Death” accords, when the stack is destroyed, but the super-rich have endless backups. Due to their lacking fear of death, they behave increasingly immoral.

The story portrays the figure of Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman/Will Yun Lee) who wakes up, after 250 years, in a new body in the 26th century. Takeshi Kovacs is originally half Japanese and half East European. He spent his youth on a planet called “Harlan’s World”,  80 light-years away from Earth. Due to the murder of his father and the promise that his sister is going to be taken care of, Kovacs begins his military career with the Colonial Tactical Assault Corps, a terrestrial army corps, out of his sleeve and in other worlds.

After having turned his back on the Colonial Tactical Assault Corps because of his sister, Takeshi Kovacs joins the rebel Envoy Corps of Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who is against “resleeving” and the new world order in general. This rebel corps is entirely killed and Kovacs is the only survivor. Punished for his crimes by Jaeger (Daniel Bernhardt), Kovacs is incarcerated in the Millsport Maximum Security Prison on “Harlan’s World”.  In 2380, his stack is shipped from Millsport to Alcatraz Prison in Bay City (San Fransisco), to be resleeved at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, who wants him to resolve the mystery of his murder.

Kept under surveillance by the corrupt Bay City Police Department, Takeshi Kovacs not only have to protect himself from people who despise previous Envoys’ members, but also from the previous enemies of Elyas Ryker, a Bay City Police Department officer and partner of Officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), whose sleeve he’s wearing.


Science fiction is always difficult to depict on the small and big screen, despite the countless special effect genius and the tremendous progress that has been made in this area in the past 15 years. Altered Carbon has a breathtaking visual aesthetic. The lighting, as well as the special effects, are mastered.

Two talented professionals are responsible for the stunning cinematography of the series: Martin Ahlgren and Neville Kidd. The cinematographers were each involved in five episodes. Martin Ahlgren is known for his work on Marvel’s Daredevil (2015), House of Cards (2013) and Blindspot (2015) and Neville Kidd for his work on Sherlock (2010), Solid Air (2003) and A History of Scotland (2008). Over 70 special effect experts were involved in the series as well.


The choices having been made mostly by Richard Pagano, the casting couldn’t have been done more accurately. Joel Kinnaman (House of Cards) has embodied charismatically the role of the rebel and most human Takeshi Kovacs. So did Will Yun Lee, the portrayer of Kovacs in his original body, which has been given a large appearance during the series.

I can’t say how many actors, which I liked from past series, I appreciated seeing in Altered Carbon – one example would be Dichen Lachman (Being Human) who plays Reileen Kawahara, the sister of Kovacs – but the cast was surely chosen wisely and the actors embraced their roles convincingly.

The different existences in Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon doesn’t only depict a world, where the wealthiest can replicate ad infinitum, but also a world, where virtual reality and virtual beings are at home.

As Kovacs moves into The Raven Hotel, the owner, Poe (some nice literature references there), is an artificially intelligent and digital being. Poe turns out to not only be a very hospitable host but a concerned friend and one of Kovacs greatest helper as well. His figure is a wonderful allegory often used in science fiction on what it means to be human.

There’re synthetical human bodies, called “Synth” by Kovacs, that look human but have never been a real person. Their appearance can be changed anytime.

If characters aren’t completely dead, imprisoned in their own stack or changing bodies multiple times, they also can have a digital representation of themselves in the virtual world, which is unluckily often used for manipulative and torturing purposes.

Some sleeves are altered to become stronger or get a bizarre look, depending on what is aimed for.



Altered Carbon got a positive to average critical response (based on IMDb, Roten Tomatoes and Metacritic), which shouldn’t impress you more than that because it’s subjective of course.

The series had the advantage of being based on an innovative and successful novel. So, the originality of it isn’t due to the series creators, but to the author, who did the job previously. That said, it’s very easy to shatter a great story into thousand pieces if the job isn’t done properly, what can’t be said about the creators of the series.

The story suffers some inconsistencies here and there – for example (SPOILER), why did Kovacs’s sister, who is allegedly filthy rich, waited so long to break her brother out of jail? And why did she need Bankroft to do so? – but is all in all rather convincing, and most of all, never boring.
As a conclusion, I would say, that If you fancy science fiction – and if you not, it could be a start – Altered Carbon is a must see.

To read the book in English:

In German:


About the Author

Hey! I'm Martha, and I help creative people understanding and solving mental and creative blocks through blog posts about film, series, and creativity, as well as through a creative coaching website (marthasm.com) just dedicated to this topic.