Literal memory chips, interstellar warfare and more

#SGWatch4U is our weekly screen review column where we tackle anything from film to TV/Netflix.


Sci-fi is having a moment in the film industry. Reboots of cult classics like Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien march hand-in-hand with TV shows like Black Mirror and Westworld, earning top dollar at the box office while questioning humanity and the future, in a time when that future seems pretty bleak. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but a new 10-episode series from Netflix has no trouble standing out.

Adapated from the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon explores the dystopian future of a world enabled by memory chip technology. “Cortisol stacks” are literal memory chips implanted in all children at the age of one, to download and store every memory, thought, and personality trait that defines you for eternity.

Early on a soothing female voice informs us, “Your body is not who you are”; your tiny little stack is. When a person dies, so long as the stack is intact and unharmed, they can be refitted or “resleeved” into a new body; skins that can be discarded just as easily as they can be put on. It essentially awards humans the gift of immortality—if you can afford it.


Photo credit: Netlix 

The story follows Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee), a former military man turned mercenary, and the last of the elite unit of Envoys formed to aid interstellar war. His last memories are a violent shoot-out with authorities that destroys his original sleeve, and lands him in jail—where his stack is removed and placed “on ice” to serve its term. After a 250-year prison sentence, he gets resleeved into the muscled physique of Swede actor Joel Kinnaman, which comes conveniently equipped with military-grade combat muscle memory. We later learn this was a deliberate move paid for by the upper elite, but Kinnaman will see out the rest of Kovacs’ story.

It turns out Kovacs’ mysterious benefactor is Laurens Bancroft, a founding Meth (reference to the long-lived Biblical figure Methuselah) and an obscenely wealthy man who’s been able to resleeve himself continuously for 360 years. He’s hired Kovacs to take on the dangerous case of investigating his own murder, otherwise classified by the police as a suicide. Moving forward, Kovacs has both that and a violently murky past to deal with.

There’s a lot to unpack in the first episode alone. The storytelling is brisk, but takes care to explain every little detail of the Altered Carbon universe without ever patronizing the viewer. For example, 10 minutes into the show, we’re as lost as a newly awake Kovacs, but a standard procedure orientation for the prison inmates concisely explains the mechanics of sleeving and the stack. It’s scenes like this that the audience can appreciate, treated delicately to serve their purpose in furthering the plot. The result is you finish the first one-hour episode feeling like you’ve just devoured a full-length feature—but left still hungry for more.

And while there is a lot more gore and action than what a regular sci-fi fan might bargain for, Altered Carbon dives boldly into “real-world” issues like class disparity and morality as well—both classic tropes of the genre. The separation between the dark, dirty streets of the working class and the pristine white homes of the upper class (who literally live in the clouds) is distinct, and evokes class dynamics reminiscent of Batman or Blade Runner.

Additionally, the whole concept of resleeving may sound empowering, but such power is reserved for those who can pay their way to play God. Bancroft and his family can live on for centuries, upgrading into shinier bodies each time their old ones die, but the poor cannot afford such luxury of choice. When a 7-year-old girl dies in a hit-and-run, she’s resleeved into the body of an old woman, selected from Alcatraz’s available inventory of prisoners. So when her outraged parents try to refute the resleeving, a weary prison guard reminds them bluntly, “If you don’t like it, pay for an upgrade or put her back in storage.” The message is clear: Beggars can’t be choosers.  

So much of the sci-fi canon is repeated or reiterated that there are no truly original ideas anymore. It’s inevitable that there will be comparisons made to other greats in the genre, whether it’s 1982 Blade Runner or today’s Black Mirror. The technology of downloading consciousness isn’t new, nor is Googling with your contact lenses; multiple episodes in Black Mirror rely heavily on such software (although to be fair, Morgan’s book was released first). But Altered Carbon extends the idea further to toy with notions of choice, life and morality, in a way that’s fresh even for sci-fi heads. If anything, the familiar themes in the show will look more like well-placed easter eggs.

Late last year, Netflix announced an ambitious plan to move toward original content, sinking investments to the tune of US$8 billion to make it happen; Altered Carbon is one of its first high-budget guinea pigs. Either the world must be getting progressively bleaker, or Hollywood executives are convinced sci-fi film adaptations are the way to go. Rest assured that Altered Carbon isn’t just another aimless book-to-movie adaptation; it's an in-depth look at the world through the lens of science fiction at a time when self-reflection is so crucial. And by the looks of it, it appears the odds are stacked against us.


Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix Fri, Feb 2.