Altered Carbon Netflix series review: Sleeve this mystery to me
Netflix's latest sci-fi stint is a dark, gritty and enjoyable ride for the most part.
Richard K. Morgan's first attempt at a novel, Altered Carbon, wears its Blade Runner love on its sleeve (which, incidentally, is the in-universe term for a disposable human you can download your consciousness into). Human-to-human sleeve-swapping is a fascinating sci-fi wrinkle, but the sense of dystopia déjà vu still becomes more oppressive than the steam and acid rain in Bay City. Essentially, Altered Carbon's homage to Ridley Scott is so close to rip-off, in the beginning, it'll feel like you're being cyberpunk'd.
Through these mean, neon-soaked streets, dwarfed by super skyscrapers and retina-retarding advertisements, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is a gruff detective sniffing his way through the flesh and the filth. You already know his M.O. He catches hovercar rides, grills perps in multi-lingual shakedowns and he owns a trenchcoat whose features include a ludicrously thick collar and a hand cannon stirring restlessly in one of its pockets. So far, so Deckard.
However, there is an irreverent attempt by showrunner Laeta Kalogridis to stop Kinnaman from being a complete Harrison Ford replicant – or a Johnny-come-lately Officer K. Some bold costume designer somewhere was allowed to break from the source material and accessorise our sociopathic antihero. Now, for reasons that are never fully explained, this Netflix version of Kovacs trawls through the 24th-century slums with a bright pink, child-sized backpack slung over one shoulder. It sports a rainbow and the words “I love unicorns” (which is a Blade Runner head nod in itself anyway). It's a... distracting prop, to say the least.
There are other major changes to the novel – some which may be just as irritating to ardent readers of the Kovacs trilogy – but I'll get to those in a minute. For the most part, the core murder mystery remains the same. Thanks to cortical implants called "stacks", Kovacs is a 250-year-old fixer who's “real deathed” more people than he can count and is the last Envoy (a mythical pseudo-religious group of warriors who had enhanced combat abilities and impressive powers of intuition). It's this skillset that causes him to be hired and downloaded across the known universe by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), an extremely wealthy, Earth-based benefactor.
He's a 0.001-percenter. A Meth (short for 'Methusela') who has lived well over 300 years and, thanks to the ability to clone himself and back up his consciousness every 48-hours, is effectively an un-killable God. Somebody took a damn good shot at deicide, though. Laurens was recently found in his nigh-impregnable sky palace with his stack turned to slag (along with his head). The cops are calling it an open-shut suicide. A prideful Bancroft refuses to accept this and so he press-gangs Kovacs into finding his killer, or killers. The extra challenge: our “victim” is a rich prick who's despised by billions of ground-dwellers and rival Meths alike. Worse, his inner-inner-circle is populated by a flock of ingrate children, and then there's the open marriage he has going on with a sexually voracious trophy wife, Miriam (Kristin Lehman). Basically, everybody on this planet (and maybe a few others in the system) has a motive.
Further entanglements appear when Kovacs attracts a tail in the form of Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a feisty detective who shouldn't be this interested in him. In terms of addiction, the first half of this ten-part series proves to be irresistible as our hero tries to dodge the big brother eye of the BCPD while blasting his way through a number of redlight districts filled with shadowy interested parties. The cinematography and world-building here are top-notch, and Kovacs' investigation is an aesthetically-pleasing drift between some dazzling dreamscapes of heavily augmented-reality and virtual environments. Also, this being a world where the human body is as disposable as underpants, you ought to prepare yourself for a heaped helping of gratuitous nudity and graphic violence. However, limits have been maintained; Kalogridisto backed right off from a cross-sleeving rape scene that's present in the book.
There's been some other tinkering as well: some subplot shoehorning in which, I think, was sorely needed. A few secondary characters from the book have been allowed to bloom into sidekicks. Kovacs still feels like a lone wolf, though, as his new off-siders are too wound up in their own familial problems to offer much operational support. Basically, they're soft-targets for Kovacs' wry one-liners, delivered by Kinnaman with aplomb. Also in the category of comedy relief: The Hendrix, an AI-voiced motel in the novel, has been swapped out for The Raven. The new proprietor is a quick-to-violence construct of Edgar Allen Poe (Chris Conner) who, ironically, manages to anchor and humanise the amoral Kovacs at times.
For a time, Altered Carbon holds up as a great piece of entertainment, though it's never within striking distance of that Blade Runner 2049 benchmark. The mystery is solid. Kinnaman delivers a strong performance as a hard-boiled, enigmatic Envoy with a dark past drip-fed to us through ancient flashbacks. The unique concept of mismatching bodies to minds, too, allows for a number of neat twists you'll never ever see coming. That said, at times Altered Carbon can get bogged down with past exposition and explanations of future technologies which may confound anybody hoping to casually dip in and out of this. There's a lot to take in here, and I'd recommend a binge-in-one-sitting watch, and even then you'll need to keep your eyes and ears pricked.
The new story threads do conflate pretty cleanly into a major reveal in the eighth-episode, and then after that Altered Carbon loses most of its lovely, murky steam and gets lost in the clouds a little (and literally). The final episode, in particular, feels like an extended, ho-hum epilogue, featuring a "true ending" that didn't blow my stack, like I hoped it might. What also didn't help: a cheeseball fairy tale monologue which feels jarring, especially after you've just finished a house of horrors tour of modern human nature extrapolated to its absolute worst.
Basically, the sign off feels like a big pink backpack slipped on out of nowhere. Like, some exec somewhere just thought, hey, this might sacrifice the bleakness of the world we just built, but we really ought to set up and advertise The Continuing Adventures of Takeshi Kovacs (the plan is for four more seasons, folks). It's an attempt to make us all keen to needle cast ourselves into the next body of work (the 2003 sequel named Broken Angels). It's a redundant up-sell. I was down for more already.