Altered Carbon is Netflix’s latest gamble in its quest to cement its dominance in the era of streaming content. Wresting the title of “most expensive Netflix show” from previous holder The Crown, this adaptation of the beloved SF novel by Richard K. Morgan certainly shows off that budget onscreen, with lots of splashy CG and production design, showy fight scenes, and slick VR sequences. Following on the heels of the $90 million Bright, it continues Netflix’s push for more “blockbuster” fare.
The story concerns Takeshi Kovacs (modern day version played by Joel Kinnaman), a SpecOps-type soldier who then became a rebel (branded a terrorist), then was captured and put in prison. But since this is the far-flung future, some things are different: a person’s entire consciousness can be stored on a small disc-like container called a “stack,” and can be placed in any body, called “sleeves,” and sleeves can be frozen or cloned, if you’re wealthy enough. 250 years after his capture, Kovacs is freed from his prison sentence, sleeved in a body that isn’t his (his having been destroyed), and is tasked to solve the murder of a titan of industry named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) by Bancroft himself. See, being one of the super-wealthy elites, Bancroft’s consciousness was backed up on the cloud and was resleeved into one of his reserve bodies immediately, but since his stack was destroyed with his body, he has no memory of the 48 hours after his last consciousness auto-backup. Or rather, the last 48 hours of his previous body’s life. Confused yet? There’s more.
Much more. Eventually, we’ll learn about the new drugs, the new weird sex fetishes (or old weird sex fetishes with new applications), mortgaging sleeves, having your sleeve being bought out by the rich, artificial intelligences running hotels, VR psychosurgery, how resleeving allows the super-wealthy to live up to hundreds of years (in Laurens’ case, he has 21 children). And that’s only the first few episodes. Thankfully, the many interesting SF concepts get teased out over the 10-episode debut season. Not all of them get the depth that they could, but there’s an overarching plot or three to get through!
While Altered Carbon occasionally aspires to be as profound as Blade Runner or Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, it’s hampered by some clunky, largely uninspired dialogue. The occasional voiceovers are especially heavy-handed (maybe inspired by the studio version of Blade Runner that Ridley Scott loathed?). The tone of the series is very much in the style of pulpy, somewhat trashy noir but with a huge budget and flashy visuals. It’s definitely aimed at more of a Game of Thrones/Westworld crowd, complete with copious amounts of nudity and violence. Sometimes at the same time: one of the standout action scenes of the season is the most naked fight scene filmed since Eastern Promises. It’s a shame that the show’s stylistic attempts at violence (via torture through VR and genetically-engineered combat sleeves) aren’t mirrored by its sex scenes, which are ripe for visual experimentation. Only one of the sex scenes, by director Uta Briesewitz, comes close to showing something new and interesting.
As with any adaptation, changes will be made, and these are mostly hit than miss. The Jimi Hendrix AI hotel in the book is here replaced with Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner, a standout), and makes for a better, more fitting pairing with the plot. The relationship between the villain and Takeshi is also different but adds more of a tragic bent, making it more personal and dramatic. Others that don’t make sense is the abode of the ultra-rich Bancroft: in the book, it’s a sprawling estate, but in the show it’s a towering skyscraper above the clouds? Oxygen would be thin by that point, plus it would be terribly windy and cold, and why would you build such a skyscraper when the story takes place in and around the notoriously earthquake-prone San Francisco? It makes for a neat visual, but still. There’s also the unfortunate addition of more random victimization to rouse more righteous anger from our heroes.
Kinnaman enjoys himself the most, as he gets to play with different modes of Kovacs: from serious to playful, morose to tripping balls. Conner’s Poe also does a good bit of scene-stealing, and it’s nice to see such a showcase for the underrated Dichen Lachman, here playing Takeshi’s sister Rei. Purefoy, sadly, is a little too cookie-cutter in his sleazebag role.
There are some impressive effects work here, and generous amounts of well-thought-out detail in the backgrounds and production design, that all serve to make the impression of a very well-realized world, befitting the book. The important points it addresses: the abuse of power, how power corrupts, the inequality between the haves and have-nots, remain as effective as ever (and are a little more timely). While this isn’t going to be winning Netflix any awards (unless they’re the technical variety), it is entertaining enough and looks great, and is compellingly watchable enough for it to make its mark with the intended demographic.
It’ll also be an interesting template should they pursue it further; the next book takes place 50 years after this one and Kovacs is in a different sleeve, so it would mean a whole new cast. Possibilities abound, and hopefully they can smoothen out the rougher edges next time.
Watch the official trailer for Altered Carbon here: