Under the surface.
We've come to expect copious amounts of violence and nudity on premium TV these days thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, but Altered Carbon takes it to a whole new level. It can feel a little excessive, especially in the first few episodes.
But the further you get into Altered Carbon, the more you realize how smart the show actually is--how effectively it gets across its themes and ideas, often by showing rather than telling. It makes you wonder: Why is there so much nudity and violence in Altered Carbon?
The Netflix show's writer, executive producer, and showrunner, Laeta Kalogridis, has a very good answer.
"There's a lot of bravery on the part of our cast, male and female, and a lot of commitment in trying to get across one of the core premises--because there are a great many interlocking ideas that we're trying to bring forward. One of them is that there is a disposability to the human body once you create this kind of technology," Kalogridis told GameSpot.
In the world of Altered Carbon, human consciousness has been digitized, each person's mind and memories residing on a "cortical stack" located at the base of their skull. Bodies, called "sleeves," are replaceable. Even if your sleeve dies, your stack can be inserted into a new one--as long as the stack itself remains intact. The show raises a lot of questions about how that would affect the gap between the rich and the poor.
"Our worst instincts as human beings have to do with our carelessness with natural resources, and when the body itself becomes just one more of those resources, how will we treat it? Will we treat it with such indifference and with such depersonalization that it becomes more like a very fancy car than a repository of the self?" Kalogridis continued. "And that, I think, is one reason that the nudity itself is not gratuitous; it's meant to reinforce to you, as a viewer, that the advent of this technology fundamentally and substantially changes people's relationships with their idea of their own body."
In other words, in a world in which bodies are interchangeable, what does nudity even matter? It's not really "you" being seen naked--it's just your sleeve. Depending how wealthy you are, it might not even be the one you were born in--or even a real human body, since synthetic sleeves are also a thing.
As Kalogridis pointed out, Altered Carbon's nudity is "equal opportunity"--the show features a comparable number of naked male bodies as female. She emphasized that the whole thing only works because so many of the actors were onboard to strip down.
"There's no way to overstate how brave it is for one actor--much less this group of people--to decide together that they're going to make this statement about this world, because it only works when they do it together," she said.
"Naturally, when you pick something to tell a cautionary tale about, normally what you want to do is show the thing you're cautioning against," she quipped.
One of the things Altered Carbon cautions against is what Kalogridis sees as humanity's very real obsession with immortality--one she's afraid will have unforeseen consequences as technology continues to build toward something that may wind up looking very like the fictional cortical stack.
"It's a disruptive technology that much of Silicon Valley is--if you ask me--unhealthily focused on," she said. "Anything that you invent that is disruptive, any new technology that is created, I can guarantee you absolutely there will be unintended consequences--and annoying people who say, 'Well, who could have seen that coming?'"
"Imagine what could go wrong--all you have to do is apply human nature to it," she continued.
That thinking manifests in Altered Carbon in countless ways, from the carelessness with which some characters charge into combat, to the null-G knife fights between a husband and wife team who battle to the death for rich people's amusement. The most egregious example is probably how prostitutes are treated--throughout the season it's revealed that violence against prostitutes (both female and male, although mostly female) can be bought for the right price. The women have to hope their pimps bother to spin them back up in replacement sleeves.
Kalogridis believes that's just part of the reality of this world--not to mention noir as a genre.
"Noir has a history of holding up a mirror to the darker side of human society, and I will be thrilled to remove the violence from noir when we remove the violence from our lives," she said. "It's necessary to point out a thing in order to make progress on changing the thing. And if there's something that I think we maybe have all noticed in the last couple of years--maybe--when you just pretend that something's not happening, that will not affect change. Acting as if it's not happening because you are uncomfortable in looking at it has very little value if what you want is to make things better. If what you want is to stay comfortable and feel good, I suppose it's fine."
"But that's not what interests me," she concluded.
Altered Carbon is out now on Netflix. Read our full Altered Carbon review, check out why Altered Carbon is the Game of Thrones of cyberpunk, learn what all the show's crazy sci-fi terms mean, and read what the show's cast and creators have to say about its overall message.