There are some meaty philosophical questions percolating under the surface of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, the new sci-fi series that dropped on the streaming platform last week. Adapted from a 2002 novel by British author Richard K. August, the series grapples with existential questions about humanity, memory, reincarnation, and class, delivered in the form of a glossy action spectacle. Like any good speculative genre offering, the spectacular futuristic world-building renders the more challenging material palatable to audiences, making Altered Carbon suitable for those looking for something deeper, as well as folks who just want to see star Joel Kinnaman’s butt every episode.
Spread out across multiple time periods, at its core Altered Carbon is a film noir crime investigation. Following an opening that features an adrenaline-spiking shoot-out, our protagonist Takeschi Kovacs (Kinnaman) is revived after 250 years of cyro-slumber to solve the murder of 1%-er Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, The Following and Resident Evil). Bancroft is capable of hiring Kovacs to solve his own murder because in the future human consciousness can be digitized on a “stack” and input into a new body, or “sleeve.” The technological advances have essentially made the rich immortal, religion nearly obsolete and created a substantial class divide between those who can and can’t afford new bodies.
Bancroft‘s case is arguably the least interesting aspect of the show – it’s a familiar plot device that’s required to help propel the narrative forward, and despite Machiavellian conspiracies and twists, it’s essentially still just a procedural designed to get characters from Point A to Point B. Cyberpunk (the sci-fi subgenre that Altered Carbon falls into, which includes Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell) traditionally leans on a criminal investigation for structure, but it is rarely the most engaging aspect and that’s certainly the case here.
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Thankfully there are a number of other reasons to check the series out. Unlike the aforementioned cyberpunk films, Altered Carbon has ten hours to explore this rich, vibrant world. The wet neon, retro-futuristic aesthetic is familiar to other properties, but it is still exceedingly well-executed . Each episode also offers at least one major action sequence, including stand-outs like the gravity-free fight in episode three and a VR torture sequence that spills into the real world in episode four. The series isn’t immune from “Netflix sag” – the phenomenon that afflicts many of the streaming platform’s Marvel series – but the glossy production values and frequent action sequences are enough to justify return visits to this world.
As the lead, Kinnaman is a relatively stoic and impersonal protagonist. He doesn’t emote a great deal and Kovacs doesn’t have a great deal of difficulty acclimatizing to a future he’s 250 years removed from (early episodes involve frequent bouts of exposition to catch him – and by extension the audience – up to speed). I found his partner/foil, Detective Ortega (Martha Higareda) a little too gruff and angry at the offset, but warmed to her around the mid-way point when her background comes into focus. Purefoy is fine, nothing more; he’s basically phoning in a more subdued take on his Joe Carroll performance from The Following.
A number of other character actors / genre staples appear in supporting roles, including Battlestar: Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett, Dollhouse‘s Dichen Lachman, iZombie‘s Hiro Kanagwa, The Good Wife (and former Hamilton star) Renée Elise Goldsberry and The Wolverine‘s Will Yun Lee (as a former version of Kovacs). The likely breakout of the series is Poe (Chris Conner) – as in Edgar Allen – the AI concierge who manages The Raven hotel where Kovacs takes refuge. Poe provides the comedic relief in what is otherwise a fairly relentlessly serious series.
While at times the familiarity of the proceedings and the convoluted nature of the Bancroft investigation make for sluggish viewing, the philosophical underpinnings remain intriguing. There are some surprisingly deep questions being posed, particularly the ability for those who can afford to pay to play God using the new technology, and the disposable/fluid nature of life when a new body is a simply transaction away. It certainly changes the way several characters interact when someone can immediately reanimate if they are seriously injured or killed.
A few minor complaints: more could have been done around the identity politics inherent in Kovacs‘ transition from Asian man to white “shell.” While Altered Carbon doesn’t suffer from the problematic whitewashing issues that doomed last summer’s Ghost In The Shell, the issue doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserves, which is disappointing. Also, the depiction of women, particularly women’s bodies as sites of violence, at times borders on exploitation. I couldn’t help but wonder if the frequent butt shots and lingering looks at Kinnaman’s rock hard physique were intended to offset the countless topless and murdered women, but sensitive viewers will undoubtedly pick up on Altered Carbon‘s casual misogyny. It’s a sour note in an otherwise interesting, well-executed sci-fi series.
All 10 episodes of Altered Carbon are now available on Netflix.