Ever since HBO launched its widely successful fantasy drama Game of Thrones, other networks have been on the hunt for the next big genre show. Amazon has Man in the High Castle. Starz has American Gods. Syfy has The Expanse. These shows demonstrated that science fiction and fantasy could be a form of astute commentary on society embraced by mainstream audiences, instead of just escapism. While Netflix has fielded its own prestigious shows, like House of Cards and The Crown, it has lagged behind when it comes to science fiction. Its new science fiction thriller Altered Carbon, which launches on February 2nd, finally delivers the goods: it’s a hard-hitting genre story that doesn’t shy away from complexity and ugly truths about humanity.
Altered Carbon is based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, a grim cyberpunk future where technology allows people to transfer their consciousness from one body to the next — if they can afford it. It’s a groundbreaking achievement. Murder victims can testify against their killers, and explorers can travel to distant planets. But there’s a downside: those who can afford to effectively live forever, jumping from cloned body to cloned body, consolidate their power for centuries and use it in disturbing ways.
What starts out as a faithful adaptation of the source material — a noir thriller about a dead soldier named Takeshi Kovacs brought back to life to investigate a murder — turns into a condemnation of the power that comes with wealth, and how putting a price tag on human life can cheapen it in horrific ways.
Altered Carbon opens 500 years in the future, where Kovacs (played alternately by Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun Lee, and Byron Mann) awakes in a creepy artificial womb after being killed by soldiers on a distant planet. He quickly discovers that he’s in a new body and that he’s been summoned back to life by a wealthy Meth, which is slang for the super rich who prolong their lives by switching bodies. He’s given an offer he can’t refuse: if he helps the ultra rich Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) uncover his own murderer, Kovacs will walk away with a lot of money and a full pardon for his prior crimes. Refuse, and he goes back on ice — a sort of virtual punishment — for another couple of centuries.
It’s a complex, sometimes dizzying world full of body-hopping characters and moving parts. Kovacs, who is primarily depicted by Kinnaman, is immediately set upon by numerous parties with their own agendas as soon as he accepts the case. There’s Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who is in love with Ryker, the disgraced detective whose body Kovacs inhabits. A gangster named Dimitri Kadmin (Tahmoh Penikett) is gunning for Ryker, unaware that he’s not who he seems to be. There’s Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh), a former soldier who blames Bancroft for the death of his daughter, whose mind is now trapped in a digital interface. Finally, there’s Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman), Kovacs’ sister, whom he thought had been killed years ago.
Like American Gods and Game of Thrones, Altered Carbon doesn’t shy away from the sex and violence of its source material. Most of it originates in the fantasies of bored, immortal Meths like Bancroft, who are freed from the limits of mortality and morality. They are forever searching new ways to push the limits — and can afford to act out their depraved impulses on the replaceable bodies of the poor. This includes the murder of men, women, and even children, for a sexual thrill. Bancroft’s erotic desires include rape and murder, and while he loves his wife Miriam too much to explore them with her, others are not so lucky. In one dramatic scene, he throws a party for his rich friends where the showcase attraction is a fight to the death between a husband and wife in zero gravity. There’s a clear socioeconomic line between the wealthy and those who become fodder for their fantasies. “In this world,” Bancroft tells Kovacs, “the only real choice is between the purchaser and the purchased.”
As we learn more about Kovacs’ journey from body to body, it becomes clear that there are larger machinations in play than just the indulgences of the rich — one that involves the Envoys, a radical group that wants to effectively end humanity’s artificial immortality.
Unfortunately, all the disparate elements don’t quite gel, from Kovacs’ relationship with his sister to the unveiling of the truth behind Bancroft’s mysterious death. In the rush to cram in so many details and characters, the show skimps on the thing that would hold all of these people together as they jump from body to body: their relationships. While there are some glimpses of Kovacs’ past throughout the season, it only gets a proper treatment in a single, pivotal episode, and it’s not quite enough to work in the emotional depth necessary to power the back half of the season.
Still, it’s an engrossing ride. The world is dense and lived-in, its grim and violent future punctuated by the occasional zany note, like the bright pink unicorn backpack that Kovacs carries through a gruesome fight scene. Kinnaman and Yun Lee excel as the two versions of Kovacs, who struggles to understand the violent worlds he moves through, and proves to be the right person to take on not just the murder mystery he is tasked with investigating, but the more malevolent forces lurking beneath the surface.
While this 10-episode season is largely a self-contained story that ends on a satisfying note, the mechanisms are in place for another season that explores some of the lingering mysteries, with a new actor portraying Kovacs like a much more violent Doctor Who. With Altered Carbon, Netflix seems to have found its weighty genre drama to catch up with the likes of HBO and Starz.