The hunger with which fans of cyberpunk will devour Altered Carbon, the noir adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s definitive novel on Netflix, is not up for question. The television landscape hasn’t yet spawned any classics of this particular sci-fi sub-genre the way cinema has with the likes of Blade Runner or even the more controversial Ghost in the Shell (although some are in the works), so the field is wide open for this series in which minds are downloaded into new bodies to prolong life. Fortunately, Altered Carbon succeeds on its own many merits, not just because of the dearth of competition.
Starring Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) as Takeshi Kovacs, whose memory (or “cortical stack”) has been placed in a new body (or “sleeve”) after serving 250 years of an eternal prison sentence, Altered Carbon follows the investigation for which Kovacs has been revived (or “spun up”): to find the murderer of Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purefoy (Hap and Leonard). Since Bancroft died before a 48-hour backup could be made of his consciousness, his new sleeve has no memory of the event.
Those parenthetical terms may seem daunting, but the techno-jargon takes surprisingly little time to get used to, and the future world the show takes place in is immediately immersive. For example, the data contained in the cortical stack, which all citizens have installed in the base of their skulls at age 1, contains a person’s DHF, or digital human freight — the sum of their entire consciousness. It takes no more time to accommodate this new vocabulary than it takes to realize that Bay City, the setting of the show, is the equivalent of what in our time is known as San Francisco.
Kinnaman’s performance in the opening episodes viewed for this review is strong but largely emotionally detached, which may seem strange given what is seen in flashbacks of his earlier life when Kovacs was in his original body, enacted by Will Yun Lee (Falling Water). Important women in his life, for example, such as Reileen (Dichen Lachman of Dollhouse) and Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry of The Good Wife) haunt his thoughts and motivate his actions, but he mostly accepts his new life with all of its strings attached after only cursory objections.
This may be largely due to his status as an Envoy, a now extinct breed of super-soldiers who have enhanced senses, pattern recognition abilities, and the ability to control their physiological and psychological responses. Kinnaman’s portrayal, then, is accurately matter-of-fact, and essentially acts as the hard-edged action hero of the series. And with mercenaries like Dimitri Kadmin, played memorably in the premiere by Tahmoh Penikett (Supernatural), hunting him down to prevent him from finding out the truth about Bancroft’s murder, he has plenty of chances to shine in that role.
As a kind of foil to the criminal element, a Bay City police officer named Ortega (Martha Higareda of Royal Pains) is along for the ride, and her no-nonsense pluckiness is definitely an enjoyable counterpoint to the dark world being portrayed in the series. Ortega also feels a little one-note at times just like Kovacs, but as a developing character, the consistency is comfortable rather than bothersome.
Where Altered Carbon shines, however, is in its futuristic visuals and its thematic explorations of the nature of identity and the soul. The cityscape of Bay City is simultaneously dreary and magnificent, both gray and neon, from the rain-soaked alleyways to the mansions above the clouds. Meanwhile, the narrative backdrop of religious objection to re-sleeving souls in someone else’s discarded body as well as the societal impact of the wealthy having top pick of the most desirable sleeves are equally awe-inspiring concepts to use as a jumping off point for the series.
With plenty of action and even a bit of humor — you’ll want to buckle up for some dark comedy during Takeshi’s visit to an artificial intelligence hotel in the premiere — Altered Carbon is the perfect television entry point for cyberpunk fans. Although the series sometimes feels more like a feature movie drawn out over its 10 hours, the world is a joy to explore during that time. The characters are immediately engaging despite a lack of complexity, a fault that could be remedied by a second season. In the meantime, tune in for season one when Netflix drops all ten episodes on Friday, February 2, 2018.