High concept science fiction series have been having a great run lately, and "Altered Carbon" is another fascinating new title to add to the list. Based on a series of novels by Richard K. Morgan, "Altered Carbon" imagines a world where the human consciousness can be transferred from one body or "sleeve" to another, allowing people to live for multiple lifetimes and making space travel and colonization possible. This has also lead to a massive social divide between the unimaginably rich "meths" who are essentially immortal and untouchable, and the poor who have been left to stagnate technologically and economically.
Our hero in this universe is Takeshi Kovacs, who is played in the present by Joel Kinnaman, but who we also seen in flashbacks in his prior sleeves played by Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann. He's a world-weary mercenary with a past who is recruited into the service of a meth, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who wants him to solve an impossible murder. Kovacs is haunted by memories of his old mentor Quell (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and his sister Rei (Dichen Lachman). And as he works through the case, he's trailed by a suspicious police detective, Ortega (Martha Higareda), and has run-ins with a vengeful soldier (Ato Essandoh) and the AI of a macabre hotel (Chris Conner).
"Altered Carbon" is reportedly one of Netflix's most expensive projects to date, due to a staggering amount of CGI and other effects work. And though the aesthetics are on the derivative side, echoing "Blade Runner" more than anything else, naturally, it all looks great. The worldbuilding is the best part of the show by far, exploring how the ability to "resleeve" has affected this future society from top to bottom. Murder victims can be brought back to testify against their killers. The bodies of the incarcerated can be rented out or borrowed. One episode sees a character's dead grandmother come home for the holidays in someone else's body. We also see cloning, interstellar travel, virtual reality, sentient AI, cyborgs, synthetic bodies, and mass surveillance in the mix.
The show is also very R-rated, with lots of nudity, sex, and violence. Things occasionally verge on gratuitous, especially where the fight scenes are concerned, but I found the lack of content restrictions helped to emphasize how cheap lives were in a world where death is no longer meaningful. This also allowed for some interesting concepts like gladiatorial deathmatches and extreme interrogation tactics to land with more impact. "Altered Carbon" is similar to "The Expanse" in this regard, though it doesn't have that show's sweeping scope and rigorous scientific accuracy. I prefer the characters on "Altered Carbon" though, who are more colorful and more fun to watch.
It's an unusually diverse cast that the show's creators have put together. Closed captions are necessary to get the maximum effect of this, as characters have dialogue in multiple languages, including Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic. I have to remark on the dissonance of Joel Kinnaman playing a character named Takashi Kovacs, but this is part of the show's premise, and there were clearly great pains taken to ensure diversity in the rest of the cast. And in large part, everyone does an excellent job. I especially enjoyed Martha Higareda's Detective Ortiz, who seems like a stereotype at first, but becomes compelling in a hurry. Also, Chris Conner's AI character is a charmer.
Of course, when you get past all the fancy sci-fi trappings, this is a detective story. And it's here that the show's weaknesses are the most apparent. The writing is fairly good throughout, but I found that it did start to slip in the last few episodes when it came time to execute all the big reveals. The show is much better at introducing the world and concepts of "Altered Carbon," bit by bit, than it is at enlivening the murder mystery elements of its familiar plot or making up excuses for more action scenes. I'm actually relieved that any further seasons of will be leaving the majority of these characters behind, as the universe they inhabit is far more interesting than they are.
All in all this is a very satisfying piece of genre television, and an unusually committed one to the quality and the cohesiveness of its vision. I don't think it's quite one of the greats, being ultimately more interested in the fireworks over the ideas, but it's a great sign of the times for science-fiction fans that a show like "Altered Carbon" exists.