When you slip into the world of Netflix's science-fiction epic Altered Carbon, you'll be launched out of the orbit of your bland living room and into a sweet-looking dystopian future several centuries from now. Flying cars, human augmentation, a VR sex industry for all your pervy needs... Altered Carbon has it all.
You'll also notice a few visuals and themes that seem awfully familiar, and that's because Altered Carbon — based on the 2002 Richard K. Morgan cyberpunk novel — uses looks and themes borrowed from all sorts of books, movies, and TV shows to make its own unique world. This is a trend in sci-fi, and it's inspired by writers' thirst to imaginatively expand on where we are currently.
"I think if you're doing a dystopian future of any kind, it doesn't really matter if its Blade Runner or any of these other things," star James Purefoy told TV Guide. "Essentially they're all doing the same thing, which is extrapolating where we are now on present trends, where we're going to end up."
But there's more to Altered Carbon than the dystopian future. Here are some of the many influences that helped shaped Altered Carbon from book to Netflix series.
Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and others
Morgan follows in the footsteps of science-fiction's greatest craftsmen of f'd-up futures and technological nightmares. Altered Carbon is all about defying mortality with the ability to upload your consciousness to a small disc called a "stack," which is implanted in the back of the neck. The cool thing about it? A stack can be put into any body, meaning once your physical self gives out — via death, old age, or whatever — you can throw your stack, which doubles as a sort of digital soul, into another younger, healthier (and may as well make it sexier) body, making it possible for someone to "live" forever. Of course this kind of longevity is only available to those who can afford it, so poor people still need to plan their funerals.
Altered Carbon also touches on clones (with a twist), physical augmentation (because our wimpy flesh isn't enough) and artificial intelligence. That last bit gives the show one of its best characters, an AI who does by the name of Poe and runs an Edgar Allen Poe-themed hotel that's outfitted with ceiling-mounted gatling guns. Though the notion of stacks is front and center, there are tons sci-fi concepts going on in the show.
Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Westworld
Remember that part above where I said stacks can be put into other bodies? That's a complicated process known as "sleeving," and it simplifies the idea of life by making our physical bodies just vessels for our stacks. But for the series, it really complicates things. The star of Altered Carbon is a character named Takeshi Kovacs, who awakes some 300 years later in the body of one supremely jacked character played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing). However, he's frequently mistaken for the previous owner of the body, and, well, it's not always easy to convince others that you're an Asian freedom fighter from three centuries ago and not a controversial Caucasian cop from not too long ago.
The idea gets played with even further, because — and this isn't really a spoiler if you think about it — people aren't always who you think they are thanks to the ability to clone "sleeves" and move stacks around. That brings up the paranoia of identity found in Battlestar Galactica, the notion of fitting bodies for a specific task like Dollhouse (there's also a Dollhouse reunion with stars Dichen Lachman and Tahmoh Penikett in Altered Carbon), and the notion of personality change in Westworld. Plus, it gives actors something fun to do!
This one is the most obvious, from a visual standpoint. "There's definitely some love shown to Blade Runner," Kinnaman told TV Guide. "I think Blade Runner is also inspired by the same things that Altered Carbon is inspired from."
A quick glance at Bridge City, the "new" San Francisco where most of the show takes place in, and you'd think Harrison Ford will show up any second blabbering on and on about "replicants." The neon signage, some of it in Japanese, that climbs skyscrapers plastered with video ads creates the same Tokyo-inspired setting as Ridley Scott's classic, and on the ground, tight alleyways, crowded streets and ramen kiosks further recall Blade Runner's Los Angeles.
John Woo films
There's a clear Asian cinema influence on Altered Carbon, and it's a welcome sight. Not only does the cast feature many Asian actors (representation, yay!), but many of the series' dope fight scenes are shot in the style of 1990s Hong Kong action films from directors like John Woo and old Samurai films. That means some emphatic slow-motion gunplay, dizzying spinning kicks and slicing-and-dicing katana fights. All that's missing is a flock of white doves (from the grime and dirt of the city, doves are probably all dead).
As James Purefoy says in the video above, ideas from Fritz Lang's 1927 classic film are also represented in Altered Carbon. The class struggle of that dystopian sci-fi film carries over to the Netflix series, as wealthy folks — called "Meths," short for the extremely old Methuselah, because they can afford to live long by moving their stacks into younger sleeves — live above the clouds in lavish mansions while the poor toil below. There are obviously characters struggling to be accepted by the Meths, and there are rich people who want to scrub the poor from the face of the Earth. It gets really messy.
Chinatown (and other film noir)
Despite its sci-fi veneer, Altered Carbon is, at its heart, a film noir. Kovacs essentially becomes a hardboiled detective when he's asked by rich dude Laurens Bancroft (Purefoy) to solve his own murder (yeah, he was murdered, but his stack was intact so he's still alive and... you'll just have to see). Kovacs is your typical private dick seen in the smokey reels of classic film noir; he's a jerk, he's untrusting of anyone, and he's wicked smart. Of course there is so much more than meets the eye with greater conspiracies at work and once-trusted friends turned enemies, and it's up to Kovacs to sort through the mess and untangle it.
Season 1 of Altered Carbon will be released Friday, Feb. 2 on Netflix.