Get ready to have your mind ripped out and uploaded to the sky.
Netflix is searching for a genre success story like Game of Thrones, and they may have just found it. Altered Carbon is a no-holds-barred sci-fi epic, with a twinge of cyberpunk noir. The 10-episode series is a bonkers, pulse-quickening experience. Just be sure to leave your brain at the door.
As part of the “Takeshi Kovacs” series of books by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon imagines a future where humans can cheat death. Bodies are interchangeable, and consciousness can be digitized and transferred. Death is a construct of the past, and the new age is bright with endless possibilities. Want to experience life in different bodies? Need to trick someone as a child or pass as a member of the elderly? All of this is possible and more if one has the money. An issue arises, however, with the idea that if people in power never die, they can continuously rule, shaping the world as they see fit.
Takeshi Kovacs (played in current-time form by Joel Kinnaman and in flashbacks by Will Yun Lee) has just been awakened from a 250-year imprisonment. Killed while staging an uprising against the new world order, he has now been given new life to assist in solving the murder of the incredibly wealthy aristocrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft has no memory of who could’ve killed him, and he has significant doubt that he committed suicide. He believes that Kovacs is the only person who could solve this crime.
Outside of his work on The Killing, Kinnaman hasn’t really been leading man material. He hasn’t left a mark despite Hollywood’s attempts to make him a star. Even his performance in RoboCop leaves something to be desired. So I initially found his casting in this to be an odd choice. But he’s actually perfect for the role and shows a range in this I didn’t think he was capable of. In one instance he’s turning on his action hero persona, and in another we can see the depths of regrets and a longing for those who have been taken from him.
Still, the true star of Altered Carbon is the setting. Drawing inspiration from Blade Runner, the series builds on Ridley Scott’s film in fascinating ways, presenting a world that features everything the heart desires, with countless venues to fulfill the wildest sexual fantasies, the greatest luxuries, and spectacles abound. When one lives forever, the level of entertainment must continuously reach greater extremes. Even to a point where gladiatorial battles are after-dinner entertainment.
Altered Carbon is great when it’s moving full-steam ahead. But when the series grinds through predictable scenarios and long-winded terminology, it falters. The show has its own unique lexicon, with human bodies referred to as “sleeves” and the chip that holds consciousness backups called a “stack.” People who are rich enough to have immortality are known as “Meths.”
Some early episodes can feel like homework, though not just for this language, but also because of how many mysteries the series has to untangle. Should individuals with religious beliefs be brought back to life to testify against their assailants? That is a big question from the beginning of the story, but it gets lost along the way. Answers do eventually come, but they’re obscured by a web of conflicts and conveniences.
The series isn’t shy about its extreme use of violence. Meths like Bancroft must stave off their boredom somehow, and that often means they murder men, women, and children if just for a little excitement. The intense violence makes Altered Carbon difficult to watch at times. Women are beaten and eliminated with no hesitation. There are moments where the violence escalates to such extremes that I had to pause the show a while and return to it later. It’s not for anyone with a weak constitution. But it’s necessary to show that when bodies can be changed at will, it doesn’t matter what happens to that physical shell. The way the series executes the idea, though, does borders on absurdity.
Altered Carbon is a stunning original series for Netflix. It builds a world that is truly believable and, despite the living conditions of many involved, a place that begs to be explored. It’s at its best when exploring the corrupted world its characters inhabit, not so much when it tries to examine the religious implications of switching bodies. And the primary murder mystery plot isn’t all that compelling, especially compared to some of the other storylines. The series might be a little rough around the edges, but Altered Carbon has enough action and atmosphere to make it an easy add on your Netflix queue.