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Netflix’s Altered Carbon gave me what Blade Runner 2049 couldn’t

A visual spectacle for science fiction fans

A scene shot below and to the side of the Golden Gate Bridge at night, the future city of San Francisco in the background.
In the 25th century the Golden Gate Bridge has become a slum, piled high with shipping containers that people use for habitats like filthy little gerbils. At the street level it’s disgusting, but a night and from the right angles it’s beautiful.
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Toss a science fiction show onto an online streaming service and I will watch it. Literally anything. Yes, even a Cloverfield thing. I have no willpower when it comes to artistic visions of humanity’s future, even clumsy ones. When I sat down last week to start watching Netflix’s new series, Altered Carbon, I wasn’t really expecting much. But the first episode absolutely blew me away.

But it wasn’t the tech or the undertones of class warfare that got me so excited. Most of that felt like a bit of a rehash. No, it was the set design, the level of production quality and the absolutely stellar world building. It’s a spectacularly generous show, with a treat for the viewer hidden around every corner. In fact, it might just have out Blade Runnered the new Blade Runner by a country mile.

[Warning: What follows contains spoilers for Altered Carbon as well as Blade Runner 2049.]

I was looking forward to last year’s Blade Runner 2049, and I feel like the film delivered narratively. I got a kind of closure that I simply hadn’t expected, and I enjoyed my time in the theater (twice!) immensely. But its futuristic vision of Los Angeles felt surprisingly inert.

Where was the driving rain from the of the 1982 classic? Where were the giant gouts of flame rising over a dark, yellowed skyline? What was presented to audiences felt flat to me, obscured by fog and covered by grime. The camera flew over it, not through it. Later, when the setting changed to somewhere out in the ashen wastes, I nearly lost interest in the world entirely. It was desolate, verging on boring.

Altered Carbon, on the other hand, is exactly what I wanted. Here is a futuristic urban landscape with both depth and scale. Filthy and foggy in its own right, but much clearer and more detailed. I’m a bit floored, frankly, that Netflix was able to even pay for it.

The show’s production designer, Carey Meyer, admits that part of the goal in designing these visuals was to evoke the original Blade Runner, while also giving 25th century San Francisco the look that Richard K. Morgan, the author of the books the show is based on, envisioned in his novels.

“There are many references in Morgan’s book, and that, plus delving into a lot of research of different sci-fi movies, 1982’s Blade Runner obviously being one, really was where we started,” says Meyer. “My favorite set to create was the street set. It was the first vision that I had in my mind for this project.”

A rainy street scene lit by glowing pornography.
The lower levels of San Francisco, down on the streets where the “grounders” live. If you squint your eyes you can almost make our Deckard and Pris in the distance.

Say what you will about the show’s acting talent. I thought that the emotional arc of Takeshi Kovacs was adequate, especially when you consider the herculean effort required to split a single soul between two very different actors. But the look and feel of Altered Carbon is spot on. It’s a luxurious treat for fans of science fiction. If nothing else, the first episode is well worth your time.

That same city scene above, now filled with floating ads as far as the eye can see.
An ocular implant spams Takeshi Kovacs on his first trip into the city after more than 200 years locked away.

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