Altered Carbon is set in a future in which human consciousness can be transferred from one body to another via a process called “sleeving,” thereby allowing people to resurrect themselves in new forms. That’s an all-too-fitting conceit for Netflix’s new sci-fi series, given that it does the exact opposite—downloads some new (and not-so-new) ideas into a mold modeled slavishly on Blade Runner, and to such an extent that showrunner Laeta Kalogridis should be hoping Ridley Scott has let his streaming-service subscription lapse.
Scott’s seminal 1982 film, which recently spawned a gorgeous if underwhelming sequel in last October’s Blade Runner 2049, is as influential as any modern sci-fi work, and yet even so, it’s stunning to discover just how indebted Altered Carbon is, both aesthetically and conceptually, to its illustrious ancestor. Flying cars zoom through rainy metropolises teeming with skyscrapers adorned with holographic neon advertisements. Grimy city streets are comprised of dilapidated buildings covered in graffiti. Whorehouses are bursting with shady women, and serve as the locale for sequences featuring shattering glass. Wealthy and powerful titans of industry live in imposing enclaves high above the surface-level riff-raff. And of course, a jaded gumshoe in a long overcoat (its collar upturned) navigates this landscape in search of a target—and a truth—that always seems just out of reach.
Adapted from Richard K. Morgan’s celebrated 2002 book, Altered Carbon is second-generation future noir, and its riffing on Blade Runner is, if inferior to Blade Runner 2049, nonetheless handled stylishly. Rarely has a small-screen affair featured so much exceptional sci-fi CGI and production design—from vast panoramas of Earth’s Bay City urban centers and shots through the gilded-paradise homes of the elite, to trips into virtual-reality environments where everything has a kaleidoscopic-fish-lens fluidity, Kalogridis’ show mimics with skill. Factor in a number of combat sequences that have been choreographed with muscular flair, and the proceedings prove to be a consistently arresting sort of facsimile—one that pays reverent homage while adding novel flourishes to its stock template.
In other words, most sci-fi fans will instantly recognize Altered Carbon as existing in a familiar yet-to-be, and that notion is only reinforced by its subsequent borrowing from other genre staples (including The Matrix, via characters that function as the action’s de facto Neo and Morpheus).
It’s the 25th century, and Takeshi Kovacs (Suicide Squad’s Joel Kinnaman) is birthed out of a giant bag in a scientific lab—or, rather, he’s resurrected, since Takeshi has been on ice for the past couple of centuries. A former super-soldier known as an Envoy who helped maintain law and order across the galaxy on behalf of the UN’s governing Protectorate, Takeshi was decommissioned after he turned against his mates and joined up with rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer (René Elise Goldsberry), aka the aforementioned Morpheus stand-in. Two centuries later, he’s back, but with a new build, since human consciousness is now stored on “stacks”—little hard-drive devices that sit at the base of the neck, and can be implanted into any body.
Kovacs’ rebirth comes courtesy of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a 1-percenter who can effectively live forever because he has the money to create both back-ups of his “stack” (every 48 hours), and exact clones of his physical self (hence his nickname “Meths,” as in Methuselah). Laurens wants Kovacs to solve his own murder, which took place before his most recent back-up—meaning he doesn’t remember what happened. It’s a clever sci-fi twist on a formulaic set-up, and before long, Kovacs finds himself ensnared in a Philip K. Dick-ish mystery involving Laurens’ femme fatale-wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman), scrappy cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), ex-military badass Vernon (Ato Essandoh), Kovacs’ beloved sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) and Poe (Chris Conner), the mustached artificial intelligence who runs the hotel that Kovacs calls home.
To recount where this investigation takes Kovacs—who’s in the body of Ortega’s dead boyfriend/partner—would require approximately 10,000 more words, since Altered Carbon is crazily overstuffed with plot, some of it clever (on “All Hallows” holiday, revelers re-sleeve as different people) and a lot of it tediously convoluted. Often, there are just too many ideas competing for attention, such that dialogue drowns in techno mumbo-jumbo and creative narrative twists turn out to be unnecessary detours. Aiming to be a cyberpunk The Big Sleep, it plays like a byzantine whodunit—replete with flashbacks, rewinds, animated interludes, and perfunctory hardboiled narration from Kinnaman—that’s bogged down by its own self-consciousness. By the time it indulges in a cover of White Zombie’s “More Human Than Human”—itself inspired by Blade Runner, and here remixed with the piano melody of John Carpenter’s theme from Halloween, which Rob Zombie remade—the series feels like a snake constantly eating its own tail, which, wouldn’t you know, is its signature credit-sequence image, with said serpent twisted into an infinity sign.
Though his supporting cast isn’t particularly memorable, Kinnaman’s devil-may-care gruffness keeps the mood rough around the edges. Unfortunately, Altered Carbon is so busy tying itself up in knots that it fails to grapple with the ethical questions—about what defines a person, and a life; about how morality can exist if mortality is conquered—that are at the heart of its tale. Issues of representation also figure prominently in the show, largely because Kovacs was originally an Asian man (played, in flashbacks, by Will Yun Lee) who’s now been given new Caucasian skin—a scenario that recalls the whitewashing controversy that plagued last year’s live-action Ghost in the Shell. No such outrage will likely greet Altered Carbon over this twist—both because the series is so thoroughly multicultural, and because Lee is given ample opportunities to shine. Still, one wishes Kalogridis exploited this central ethnic dynamic for more ruminative identity-pondering ends, rather than just as a super-cool storytelling device.
Then again, Altered Carbon is defined by its general shallowness, which it tries to mask beneath a brooding, fatalistic exterior. Never is that more acutely felt than in its fondness for bloody violence and full-frontal nudity (of both the male and female variety), which makes it feel like it’s trying way too hard to be gritty and adult. Of course, sex turns out to be an integral component of a show that, at heart, is about corporeal experience. Too bad, then, that even its treatment of this ripe-for-exploration subject never really goes anywhere. It’s all body, little soul.