Altered Carbon had a lot to live up to from day one. The Netflix adaptation of the popular Richard K. Morgan novel is meant to be both niche and mainstream. It is a neon-lit blockbuster with enough mass-market appeal and the hardcore dystopian sci-fi TV show fans of the genre have been demanding for what feels like an eternity. It is in these almost contradictory expectations that Altered Carbon finds both its strengths and weaknesses.
Enter Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), an old-world freedom fighter turned hardboiled detective. Kovacs is brought back from death 250 years later through his digitized consciousness being uploaded into a new body, or a ''sleeve'' as they are called, under the request of an incredibly wealthy and influential bureaucrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), looking to investigate his own murder. On his path to uncovering the truth, Kovacs crosses paths with no-nonsense cop, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), and a whole slew of strange faces as a conspiracy is slowly unraveled.
Sound convoluted? Maybe, but it paints a fascinating world to play around with. Immortality is an almost normal facet of life, for those who can afford it at least, and it creates many interesting cultural and societal dynamics to compound on the classic cyberpunk overtures of class warfare and inequality.
Kinnaman does a good job of embodying the noir caricature that is our leading man. Deep-voiced narration looms over raining skies as Kovacs swaggers about from one dreary locale to another with cigarette in hand and sleek trench coat flapping about. It is in the subtleties, though, of portraying a person who is no longer in touch with his own existence, that the character shines. Altered Carbon uses both Purefoy's cold, biting, and painfully smarmy demeanor, and Martha's fiery temper and desire for justice to contrast different aspects of who Kovacs was, who he is, and who he can become.
However, like any other piece of cyberpunk fiction, it lives or dies by its atmospheric qualities. Altered Carbon is a sensory treat – dimly lit, crowded alleyways and towering, neon-glazed skyscrapers evoking the best of Blade Runner – but it can be almost self-indulgent in the grime and grit of its universe. There is a lot of nudity and sex, and a lot of it feels unnecessarily tacked on to compete in a post-Game of Thrones market.
Unlike Blade Runner, Altered Carbon moves at breakneck speed. This can be perceived as a positive for some, and I certainly enjoy the well-shot and well-choreographed fight scenes, but this genre thrives on slow burns. A slow burn is the gradual immersion of the viewer into a world that feels not too distant from the one we currently inhabit. The show juggles a lot of different characters and plot lines and thematic subtext while threading its slowly deepening conspiracy. While all the pieces are there, they do not always come together for a satisfying conclusion.
Altered Carbon was faced with the impossible task of competing in the mainstream market while servicing what is a very unusual and unique slice of cyberpunk – which is an already strange slice of science fiction. Is it successful? I guess that is debatable, depending on your perspective, but what I ultimately found was a solid introduction for genre newcomers and something new for diehard fans. It stumbles occasionally, but it ultimately finds its footing and is a compelling ride from start to finish.