'Altered Carbon' is a great-looking sci-fi epic. It's also very silly.

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon. (Photo: Netflix)

Some believe that Altered Carbon — the sci-fi epic that begins streaming today — may be the most expensive production Netflix has yet bankrolled, although showrunner Laeta Kalogridis cheerfully denied a rumored $150 million production budget. Whatever it cost, Altered Carbon certainly does look expensive: sleek but also elaborate and darkly glistening — visually, it is much like Blade Runner. Altered Carbon, with its questing hero Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman, primarily; I’ll explain in the next paragraph), has the flinty dialogue of a hard-boiled detective tale; tonally, it is much like … Blade Runner again. Indeed, Ridley Scott ought to be paid some royalties for Altered Carbon. Although it’s based on a 2002 novel by his fellow Englishman Richard K. Morgan, the Netflix version is as much a visual sequel to Scott’s 1982 movie as director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was last year.

In Altered Carbon, we’re in a future where the essence of an individual’s humanity is a cluster of conscious technology called a “stack,” which can be removed from a person and inserted into another body — called a “sleeve” — endless times, thus keeping folks alive for hundreds of years, swapping bodies when necessary. We see this occur early on in Carbon, when rebel-mercenary Takeshi Kovacs, who is played by Will Yun Lee, has his stack placed in the new sleeve of Joel Kinnaman. Kinnaman-Kovacs is hired by a wealthy man, James Purefoy’s Laurens Bancroft, to find out who killed a previous-sleeve Bancroft. Kinnaman’s Kovacs roams the dirty, bleak alleyways of an overcrowded metropolis, muttering cynical thoughts; down these mean streets a man must go, as Raymond Chandler — a spiritual father to Altered Carbon — wrote in an essay about detective fiction in 1945.

Morgan’s source novel is an example of second-generation cyberpunk, the rebellious sci-fi offshoot where initially — in early-’80s novels of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and others wedding the hard-boiled tone to dystopian futures — everything was as dank as the inside of Johnny Rotten’s torn T-shirt. In adapting Altered Carbon, show creator-writer Kalogridis has taken care to emphasize tough women as well as tough men in this story — thus, for example, the two-fisted cop Kristin Ortega, played by Martha Higareda, and the lithe warrior Reileen Kawahara, played by Dichen Lachman, who already knew a lot about swapping bodies from her time on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.

There’s a kind of irony that, at a time when pop culture is seeking to explode the stereotypes of how men and women talk to and behave with each other, Kalogridis should be striving so valiantly to redeem a genre that is wholly rooted in retrograde social roles for women and men. The showrunner cannot avoid, for example, including a perfectly awful scenario in which Bancroft’s wife, Miriam, played by Kristin Lehman, acts as a classic femme fatale, slinkily seducing a mostly silent but very willing Kovacs. Is the ample nudity of both Kinnaman and Lehman a measure of Netflix daring and equal-opportunity nekkidness? Or is it an example of titillation as cynical as one of Kovacs’s wisecracks?

A lot of Altered Carbon is very silly, mostly whenever any of the principals converse. Trite dialogue prevails. “Coming back from the dead is a bitch,” Kovacs spits out early on, along with bromides such as, “The truth is a weapon!” “What are you starin’ at?” a tough guy asks Kovacs, who responds, “Don’t worry — you’re not my type.” (Ooh, is that homophobic transgressiveness I hear?) When Laurens Bancroft hires Kovacs, Purefoy uses the silky, villainous tone he deployed so cornily with Kevin Bacon in The Following: Here, he murmurs to Kinnaman, “I want you to solve a murder [pause, eyebrows waggle] … mine!” Bwa-ha-ha!

I made it through half of Altered Carbon’s 10 episodes before I decided life is too short to hear lines like, “Kovacs is a ticking time bomb!” If you like your sci-fi good-lookin’ and tough talkin’, I heartily recommend Altered Carbon. Me, if I want a dose of steely speculative fiction, I’ll reread my old paperbacks of novels by Pat Cadigan and Lewis Shiner.

Altered Carbon is streaming now on Netflix.

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