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.