Imagine being reborn after two and a half centuries on ice, only to find you have a totally new body.
That’s what happens to mercenary and rebel Takeshi Kovacs in Netflix’s latest original series, Altered Carbon, based on the 2002 science fiction novel of the same name by British author Richard K. Morgan.
Set in the futuristic world of Bay City (formerly San Francisco) and brought to life by Laeta Kalogridis (executive producer on Avatar and Shutter Island), the show explores plenty of cutting-edge themes – identity, race, gender, economics and technology.
And leading man Joel Kinnaman, who plays Kovacs, says there’s a reason why dystopian shows are dominating the TV landscape currently (recent hits Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale spring to mind).
“The human species have huge existential challenges that we have to unite around to face, and instead we are now being run by politicians that are aiming to divide us,” he says, calling the US presidency an “international embarrassment”.
“These dystopian stories are a warning tale of where we could end up if we don’t start making the right decisions now.”
Here, the Swedish actor, 38, reveals more about the show’s mind-bending motifs.
Death is not inevitable in the world of Altered Carbon
The most striking element of this futuristic world is that people’s consciousness can be saved every 48 hours on downloadable discs – and these can then be “spun up” into a new body, or “sleeve”.
But, interestingly, it’s mainly the wealthy ruling class, called “Meths”, who are able to do this – those who aren’t as privileged are called “Grounders”.
Grounders might only be able to afford to have their minds placed inside an older body, for example. One of the most disturbing scenes in the show sees a child waking up in an elderly person.
Would Kinnaman ever consider “re-sleeving” in real life?
“I think if I was given the opportunity, I would take it,” admits the star, known for roles in shows such as The Killing and House of Cards.
“But I don’t think it’s the right choice for humanity as a whole.
“It’s one of those things which is so thrilling, the idea of getting to continue to live, seeing where society goes and where innovation is going to go.
“At the same time, I think that the thesis of the show is in some ways correct, that if we lose our mortality then we also lose our humanity.”
There is a murder mystery at the core of the show
Kovacs, who is now in the body of a disgraced police detective, has been brought back to life by a 375-year-old wealthy mogul called Laurens Bancroft (played by James Purefoy) to solve a very unusual whodunnit.
You see, the victim is Bancroft himself – or rather, his previous body is. The murder was made to look like a suicide and if Kovacs solves the case of who is really to blame, he’ll earn his freedom.
Add in to the mix an ongoing love story – Kovacs is haunted by manifestations of memories from more than two centuries ago of brave rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer (played by Renee Elise Goldsberry) – and you’ve got a lot going on at once.
“I feel like it’s a very rich show that plays on many different levels, so that makes it exciting to be in,” explains Kinnaman of his role. “There’s definitely a lot of variation.”
And in terms of how true the story stays to the novel, he says: “[The changes] just gave the whole ending of this show a much stronger, emotional resonance.”
Netflix hasn’t shied away from the violent material in the book
An inevitable element of being immortal is becoming bored with what life has to offer: “I think what we’re saying is, if you live forever, what entertains you is going to get warped, and what excites you,” remarks Kinnaman.
“Your perversions grow stronger, and you become a perverted version of humanity.”
And so when characters in the show – particularly the “Meths” – try to find new ways to entertain themselves, it often takes a dark turn. For Bancroft, this horrifyingly includes holding banquets where guests watch a married couple fight to the death.
Asked what he would say to people who might think the violence in the show, particularly against women, is too graphic, Kinnaman says: “I think the violence goes to both genders.
“But violence against women is also central to the story; Kovacs grows up watching his father beat his mother.
“Also, the show wants to show the audience that the human body in this future world is disposable,” he continues, “so violence against the physical body doesn’t have the same value.”
Filming involved some crazy stunts
Kinnaman trained for the role for six months – doing everything from gymnastics to weights to martial arts.
When it comes to particularly memorable days of filming, he describes a sequence called the Fight Drome (you’ll see it in episode six) which featured about 300-400 extras.
“We were shooting in this cage where the floor was sand and there was a bunch of smoke effects. After a couple of days, the air quality in there was awful and you just had sand in every pore,” he says.
“And, it was really physically challenging, like having ten fights a day.
“So by day five of shooting that, we were pretty beat down.”
You’ll certainly be impressed when you realise Kinnaman insisted he do all his own stunts.
The visuals on screen are hugely ambitious
Netflix is renowned for its big-budget shows and, with its elaborate fight scenes, neon cityscapes, and mind-blowing detail, it’s clear that the streaming site has pulled out all the stops when it comes to Altered Carbon.
“We had a set that was three football fields deep,” says Kinnaman, whose roles on the silver screen include superhero movie Suicide Squad.
“And it was like a full-functioning city, there were stores and noodle shops – you could walk in and there was activity.
“You could shoot 360 in this world and there was construction going on, someone getting arrested.
“I didn’t have to imagine anything – I could just step into this world.”
Altered Carbon is available on Netflix today.