If there really are no new ideas, as Mark Twain once theorized, and the best we can hope for is a kind of kaleidoscope effect made out of the same old shapes, then Altered Carbon at least renders the resulting impressions in violent, trippy technicolor. Adapted from the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, the new Netflix series is replete with ideas and images from sci-fi works past and present. Can you download a human soul? What are the consequences of immortality? If you give humans more power, what kind of excesses and atrocities will they be capable of?
Altered Carbon doesn’t think about any of these things too hard, which is one of the reasons it never fully consolidates into a work that equals the masterpieces it refers to, Blade Runner and The Matrix among them. Its punch is visual rather than emotional, with scene after scene of vibrant, catalytic fight sequences that spawn yet ever more excess. The show is often beautiful, in a grungy, cyberpunk, chemical-high kind of way, and sometimes electrifying. But its thrills are cheap, even if Altered Carbon is reportedly anything but.
The series, spearheaded by the writer Laeta Kalogridis, was first optioned 15 years ago, but the risks tied up with the costly adaptation of such a brutal and complex work by a then-unknown author deterred movie studios. Netflix has no such qualms, and for once the source material offers more than enough fodder for its standard 10-episode structure. The show is set in a futuristic version of San Francisco called Bay City, in the 25th century. Most residents labor in a gritty hellscape constructed out of shipping containers and Dickensian clichés at ground level, shrouded in almost perpetual darkness. Above the clouds, the richest residents have constructed super-towers that afford them both natural light and insulation from the slums below.
The wealthy have also found ways to live forever. In the world of Altered Carbon, scientific progress has enabled human souls to be coded and stored on small disks called cortical stacks, which are embedded into the spine of every infant. If you die, your stack can be removed and placed into a different body, known as a “sleeve.” But the cost is considerable, which means immortality is mostly for the very wealthy. “Meths,” or Methuselahs, even have multiple copies of their bodies placed in storage, while their minds are set to sync automatically to the cloud every few hours. Not everyone wants to be reborn. Catholics, who believe souls go to heaven after death, can change their coding to reject being spun into new bodies.
All this is apparently why when the half-Slavic, half-Japanese character of Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in a new body, 250 years after his death, he’s in the unmistakably Scandinavian form of the actor Joel Kinnaman. Altered Carbon cuts between Kinnaman-as-Takeshi in the story’s present and Takeshi’s birth form, played by Will Yun Lee. Before he died and was essentially placed in cold-storage for a quarter-millennium for acting against the state, Takeshi was an Envoy, a soldier trained to deal with the physical and emotional discombobulation of being constantly “resleeved” into different bodies (the show is vaguer about this than the book). He’s revived by a Meth, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who offers Takeshi a small fortune and a full pardon for investigating who—temporarily—blew Bancroft’s brains out.
There’s so much happening that the first episode is a whirlwind of worldbuilding, exposition, and saturation in the show’s gloomy, dreamlike aesthetic. Viewers are plunged headlong into the strangeness alongside Takeshi, who stalks through the dystopian world (kind of an unholy mashup of RoboCop, Amsterdam’s red-light district, and Oliver Twist), trying to get oriented. He’s watched closely by a cop, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), and pursued by Bancroft’s wife, Miriam (Kristin Lehman). Takeshi eventually checks into a hotel, the Raven, run by an artificial intelligence named Poe (Chris Conner), the show’s most engaging and multi-dimensional character.
Takeshi also has repeated flashbacks to his former life, when he was initiated into a kind of resistance effort led by Quellcrist Falconer (Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry). Whatever objections there used to be to stacks seem to have dispelled, even though the world of Bay City is a grim one. Enabled by their immortality, Meths have a callous disdain for human life, watching fights to the death between poorer humans for entertainment (the winner gets an upgraded sleeve). Altered Carbon shares some of its Netflix-mate Black Mirror’s anxiety about the potential atrocities embedded in digitizing souls—a convicted killer is imprisoned in the body of a snake, and a 7-year-old girl is revived in the body of an elderly woman after a hit-and-run because it’s all her parents can afford.
This is a world in which violence is cheap, and Altered Carbon embraces the possibilities. Scene after scene features gory shootouts, and there are recurring interludes of stabbings, butchered bodies, and graphic torture. All too often these scenes involve women, which feels provocative at best and exploitative at worst. In one particularly gratuitous moment, a sex worker’s body is seen butterflied on an autopsy table, while another fight scene features a woman’s various clones littered naked around a room like sexually explicit Barbie dolls. Takeshi indulges in a shooting spree after being tortured that’s glamorized to an indefensible extent, cutting off a criminal’s head and carrying it as a trophy. Meanwhile, a love scene he unexpectedly finds himself in has the soft-jazz soundtrack and Vaseline-smeared visuals of an episode of Red Shoe Diaries.
Such choices are frustrating because there’s so much to dig into, ideas-wise, from the ethics of human immortality and the toxicity of extreme wealth to the dynamic of an impossibly unequal San Francisco (something that’s extra relevant at this moment in time). But Altered Carbon is so busy trying to wow viewers by constantly one-upping the imagery and the intensity that it barely pauses to consider its story. The writing is also distinctly clunky: a hodgepodge of vacant platitudes and canned spirituality. (“Kristin, you’re gonna get yourself real-deathed. Is that what you want?” “Sometimes belief isn’t about what we can see. It’s about what we can’t.” “Technology advances, but humans don’t.”)
Kinnaman, as Takeshi, is oddly muted, lumbering his way through the dialogue and showing a touch more elegance in the fight sequences. Higareda’s Kristin is enjoyably difficult but one-dimensional. Purefoy has a hammy blast as Bancroft, but he isn’t given enough to do to really explore his character’s nastiest tendencies; Lehman does estimable work as Miriam but is undermined by the fact that the script apparently dictated her nipples be visible in every scene. The most intriguing characters—Waleed Zuaiter’s Abboud, a Caesar Flickerman–like fight promoter—are largely left on the sidelines, with the exception of Conner’s Poe, who brings humor and warmth to a series that’s sorely in need of it. There’s some irony, and some unexplored dramatic potential, in the fact that an AI is often the most human character onscreen.
Still, Altered Carbon can be thrilling. It borrows heavily enough both thematically and stylistically from Blade Runner (flying cars, cybernoir) and The Matrix (a virtual reality you can use your mind to break out of, torture scenes with robotic insects that invade your body in nightmarish fashion) that it’s hard not to get swept up in the spectacle. Unfortunately, all too often the series feels akin to the villains in the world it’s creating—awash with cash but in need of a soul.