I still can’t believe Altered Carbon happened.
Adapted from Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel, the Netflix series (launching Feb. 2) has a planetary budget and galactic ambitions. It’s a neon-grim cyberpunk noir, a subgenre we could just call “Blade Runner-ish.” But it branches into a grander tradition of space adventure, with a legendary hero preaching rebel mysticism to a plucky anti-fascist commune. Oh, and there’s a body-swapping premise. In the future, humans download their consciousness onto cyber-soul disks, “stacks,” that outlive biological death.
Altered Carbon begins when someone wakes up in Joel Kinnaman‘s body—like we all would, just once, in a better world than this.
But did I mention the martial arts setpieces? And did I mention the full-frontal nudity? And did I mention the martial arts setpiece with the full-frontal nudity? Altered Carbon is violent—heads are beaten, blown, placed daintily in an ice bucket—but it’s also as randy as a ’90s erotic thriller that would make Catherine Tramell blush. Kinnaman’s butt is almost a co-lead.
The aforementioned derriere belongs to Takeshi Kovacs, an interstellar badass trying to solve a murder. The stylish first episode (directed by Game of Thrones ace Miguel Sapochnik) merges Takeshi’s present with dreamy hallucinations of his past. We see him resurrected in Bay City, a mega-metropolis that looks like ten Manhattans having acrobatic sex with San Francisco. He’s hired by Laurens Bancroft (a purring James Purefoy), a rich man who recently (ahem) had his head blown off. And we see memories of another Takeshi (Byron Mann), a mercenary dying hard in a bullet ballet. And we see flashes from still another past life, where Takeshi is played by Will Yun Lee (The Wolverine). He’s also haunted by a mystery woman, played by Hamilton‘s Tony-winning Renee Elise Goldsberry. And there’s a detective (Martha Higareda) on Takeshi’s trail. Listen closely for the hip future lingo: Bodies are “sleeves,” resurrection requires getting “spun up.”
Kinnaman’s going for wounded Bogart charisma, but the whiplashing plot makes him more like one of Elisha Cook Jr.’s unlucky saps, perpetually slouching toward doom. At least he looks cool: Tailored suits, chic blood stains, a bright pink unicorn backpack filled with Halo-worthy future weaponry. The wondrous Goldsberry has to spend most of the season mouthing Esalen bromides (“You have to beat the player, not the game”) in spectral flashback. There are eye-popping sequences—zero-gravity fight scene!—but the mystery runs on the grimdark fumes. You know: Strip clubs, whorehouses, dead hookers, sexual assault grotesquerie. The objectification feels campy and clinical, like someone asked the makers of The Girlfriend Experience to reboot Wild Things.
Creator Laeta Kalogridis worked on Avatar, so she has a history with epic science fiction, and Terminator: Genisys, so there are worse titles than Altered Carbon. I admire her grand guignol instincts, suspect it’s purposeful that every viewer can find one thing to be outraged about. This show tackles race, gender, and class with all the subtlety of a blowtorch. (Also: There is a blowtorch.)
I’m happy to live in a future where studios pay big money for sexy-violent meditations on the slippery state of humanity—and there’s a real promise for far-out further seasons—but right now Altered Carbon is all sleeve and no stack. B-