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Netflix's New Sci-Fi Thriller is Dark, Dystopian, and Pretty Disturbing

Set 500 years in the future, this show is going to be the next big thing Egyptians are obsessed with.

The question has been asked since time immemorial: if you could live forever, what would you do? But perhaps the more pertinent one to be asking is, if you could live forever, what would you become? 

This is the central notion that threads through Netflix’s new dystopian sci-fi thriller Altered Carbon. The show imagines a future where technology’s acceleration has rendered death a construct of the past; your consciousness can now be digitized and transferred from body to body – if you can afford it of course. When wealth equals immortality, the accumulation of it in the hands of a few effectively means they end up consolidating unrivaled power for centuries which manifests itself in severely disturbing and dysfunctional ways. 

This is the world the story exists within. The story itself, in a nutshell, is as follows: 500 years in the future, protagonist Takeshi Kovach awakes - in a new body - as the only surviving soldier in a group of hardcore interstellar warriors who were defeated when they rose up against the new world order. As punishment for his digressions, his mind was imprisoned on ‘ice’ for centuries, but now he’s been brought back to life by an incredibly wealthy ‘Meth’ (literally the term for the incredibly wealthy) Laurens Bancroft, who wants him to solve his own murder.

Though the story essentially revolves around the riveting murder mystery – and that is what will keep audiences coming back for more binge watching – the multi-layered show also reveals a commentary about humanity and the inherent danger in putting a price on human life. “It forces you to become existential in your thought, because there are philosophical issues that become very practical. So to sort of hash out something which is just a practical issue in the plot, you have to have an existential conversation to get there,” says Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish-American who plays Kovach, at an exclusive Netflix roundtable in Paris. The murder is what drives the story forward; there is a lot of existential thinking at play but it is always entertaining since it happens within the parameters of what is essentially a detective story.

What appears to divulge itself as the story unravels is a sort of inverse relationship between morality and mortality. Those who can afford the privilege of immortality – in this world known as Meths, based on the biblical Methuselah – are both essentially untouchable and incredibly bored. “Their actions have no consequences. You can get away with anything because you never die so they can behave in any way they want, which eventually gives rise to an evil way of living,” says James Purefoy who plays the ultimate Meth, Laurens Bancroft, who has been alive for over 300 years. What do you do when you’ve been alive for 300 years? You’ve essentially done everything. So you begin pushing the limits in the most depraved ways. “They need to feel things in a more extreme way because they’ve become desensitized,” he explains. Boredom, coupled with a lack of consequence, can become an intoxicating combination.

if we lose our mortality, then we also lose our humanity

The reality is that death is an equalizer of sorts, because even the wealthiest among us cannot be saved by virtue of their money. But when it’s removed from the equation – for only some people – the whole equation becomes grossly unbalanced and thrown out of whack – just like their sense of morality. “I think the thesis of the show is in some ways correct; that if we lose our mortality, then we also lose our humanity. I think that’s the core of being human, and the beauty of life is that it will end,” says Kinnaman.

Rape, torture, and murder become the games the rich play using the disposable bodies of the poor, including children. They visit high end brothels built in the sky where they can abuse prostitutes for entertainment under the premise of ‘if I destroy this body for you, I’ll buy you a new one.’ It's like rich billionaires crashing cars for kicks - except now the destruction is imposed on human bodies.

In one particularly telling scene, Bancroft throws a swanky soiree for his Meth friends where the after dinner entertainment is a zero gravity fight to the death between a husband and a wife. Winner gets a new upgraded body. Loser gets a downgraded body. “If you lived forever, what entertains and excites you is going to get warped. You’d get so bored by living this long and your perversions grow stronger and you become a perverted version of humanity,” says Kinnaman. 

If you lived forever, what entertains and excites you is going to get warped. You’d get so bored by living this long; your perversions grow stronger and you become a perverted version of humanity.

But this scene, depicting murder as a marvelous form of entertainment for the Meths, is not unique to the future when you consider humanity’s existence. It is eerily similar to gladiatorial battles for instance, which stretch back centuries. So is it simply a case that humans, at their very core, are instinctively inclined to evil, given the chance? “I think it comes down to the fact that power corrupts. And what greater power do you have than if you were immortal?” argues Kinnaman, “Of course there have been instances in human history where people have had an enormous amount of power, and the value of human life to them has become so small, so then the atrocities have ensued.” 

The show in many ways, serves as a reminder and a warning. “Perhaps we’re always going the struggle with the difference between the people we have evolved from and who we are trying to evolve to,” says Purefoy, “One of the things about dystopian science fiction is science fiction writers extrapolate from where we are today and think about how if we continue on the same path, where are we going to end up and I think it serves as a tremendous warning.” 

Every imaginary version of the future that humanity conjures up seems to have an exceedingly, though perhaps deservedly, pessimistic trajectory and this is no different in Altered Carbon. Set in a dark, twisted, neon wonderland that will visually transfix viewers, its moral undertones will make you think and rethink your stance on immortality. Just because we can live forever, doesn’t mean we should.

The show premiers on Netflix February 2nd
You can follow them on Instagram @altcarb.