Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' thrills when the sci-fi gets trippy
The body-swapping show shines when it trades one-note grimness for weird science fiction craziness.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
In terms of idea-packed cyberpunk world-building, "Altered Carbon," on Netflix now, is a total blast. Set several hundred years in the future, it features humans swapping bodies; sharp-tongued artificial intelligences; virtual reality; clones; and high-tech drugs, guns and body modification -- the full sci-fi shebang.
As with "Blade Runner", our way into this richly imagined future is through an old-school noir mystery. The story opens with a gumshoe plot straight out of the pages of Raymond Chandler, involving a disillusioned antihero with a past; a duplicitous millionaire and his sultry wife; a locked room-style murder; and a cast of supporting suspects with their own complex criminal agendas.
Watching 'Altered Carbon' on Netflix? This was its creepy marketing campaign
Joel Kinnaman plays our sci-fi shamus, Takeshi Kovacs. He's downloaded into a new body -- known as a "sleeve" for the way minds can be slipped in and out of them -- and hired by the murder victim himself. Like "Westworld" and other twisty-turny flashback-driven shows, untangling the various crimes and conspiracies requires a bulletin board covered in Post-its, but don't worry if you lose track of the finer details. Sometimes even Raymond Chandler didn't know who killed the chauffeur.
Between the show's creator, Laeta Kalogridis, and the original novel's author, Richard Morgan, "Altered Carbon" cleverly mines the body-swapping premise with trippy scenarios like "cross-sleeving" -- a mind being downloaded into a body of a different gender -- or "double-sleeving", when people split their mind into two bodies. Identity is thought-provokingly divorced from physical attributes like race and sex, while the elite are the people who have lived the longest and can afford the most clones. And the careless attitude to disposable human bodies gives a real weight and pathos to "real death", when a person's stored mind is destroyed once and for all.
Netflix's pot of money means the visuals look amazing. The neon-drenched cityscapes look a lot like those in "Blade Runner", but "Altered Carbon" finds its own identity with atmospheric VR sequences, novel future-flavoured fight scenes, and heavenly towers floating in distinctly uncyberpunk blue skies.
This sounds like a lot of fun, although fun is one thing missing from long stretches of the show. The jokes are generally of the grunted sarcasm variety, and in a world where human flesh is disposable, the noir genre's trademark sadism gets turned up to 11. Men and women -- mostly women -- get cut to bloody pieces left, right and centre, usually while naked. I'm all for a bit of the old ultraviolence, and the zero-gravity and clone-based fights are great. But as with "Blade Runner 2049" viewers could find that their mileage varies regarding when, exactly, an examination of violence against women becomes instead just more depictions of violence against women.
And, as is often the problem with Netflix shows stretched over 10 hours or more, the pace can sometimes plod.
Acting-wise, everybody from Kinnaman on down puts on their best noirish frowny faces, which does make the tone a bit one-note. Kinnaman's looming blockhead only has one facial expression. OK, so does Ryan Gosling in "Blade Runner 2049," but let's just say Joel Kinnaman is no Ryan Gosling.
The most entertaining support comes from Chris Conner as a gothic-inspired AI, and Matt Frewer as a grinning synth, but most of the cast sticks to sultry growling. I'd also love to see the actors have more fun with the body-swapping element by playing different personalities: Cliff Chamberlain and Matt Biedel deserve credit for delivering real highlights as secondary characters dropped into unfamiliar bodies, giving us fun scenes like one in which a chirpy Latina grandmother inhabits the body of a hulking thug.
It's when the story embraces its heightened sci-fi premise that the show really shines. "Altered Carbon" is worth a watch for moments like these when it's not wearing its influences on its sleeves.