When Joel Kinnaman first appears in Netflix’s new science fiction series Altered Carbon, his character is awoken from stasis and unzipped from a plastic bag. He freaks out from the sudden sensory stimulation and demands to know where he is. He’s eventually set free but quickly learns that the future he now inhabits is not what it appears to be.
Viewers tuning in are likely going to have the same experience in principle: on its surface, Altered Carbon is quite the sensory experience. Its world is an intersection between the lights and strange tech of cyberpunk science fiction and the seedy darkness of film noir. And it all looks beautiful, pumped up by a budget fit for a blockbuster. But the more time you spend in this world, the more you begin to see its wrinkles. It’s a show that, in trying to be an epic, forgets to provide a solid emotional through line to make all of its ideas cohere. Still, in the moments that the 10-episode series gets right, it reveals a future rich with ideas on mortality, identity, and belief.
The central ideas in Altered Carbon revolve around cortical stacks—discs where human consciousness is stored—and sleeves, or the physical bodies where stacks can be downloaded into. This creates a future where human life has been commodified, and the richest people in the world can theoretically live forever by moving their stacks into as many sleeves as they can afford. The series centers on Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a former rebel soldier whose consciousness is reactivated when an exceptionally wealthy man, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) asks Kovacs to solve the murder of Bancroft’s previous sleeve. Yes, it gets complicated.
Altered Carbon’s world may lack a totally unique visual personality, but it makes up for this with a lot of subtext.
At its best (mostly during the last few episodes), the show is complicated in ways that generate a real sense of wonder, challenging your sympathies and making yourself consider how you would use this technology, if it existed. This wonder is mostly thanks to characters who are not only more complex than they first let on, but also provide different insights into the larger world. Kovacs’s past reveals the things that were lost in paving the way for this future. Bancroft’s obsession with his own murder exposes the price of immortality. A peek into Lieutenant Kristin Ortega’s (Martha Higareda) home life shows the tension between those who fully subscribe to new tech and those who still believe in natural death and the afterlife. Altered Carbon’s world may lack a totally unique visual personality, but it makes up for this with a lot of subtext.
If only this subtext wasn’t communicated in such heavy-handed fashion. Unnecessary flashbacks and dialogue thick with jargon significantly weigh down what should have been a consistently intriguing plot. So much so that the story loses its identity as quickly as characters can switch sleeves. The murder mystery that sets the series in motion is eventually brushed aside to make way for far less interesting subplots, killing momentum and taking focus away from the things that should really matter. This isn’t an issue unique to Altered Carbon, though. Many other live action Netflix dramas feel too long and too slow for their own good; individual episodes rarely justify their length.
Coincidentally, for a show that discusses the presence or absence of a soul, Altered Carbon also fluctuates between real emotion and empty flash. It often tries to be cooler than it really is: the R-rated violence leaves far less an impact than was probably intended, and Kinnaman still can’t quite break out of the stoic action hero trope. Meanwhile, great actors like Purefoy and Renee Elise Goldsberry are severely underused.
But at the same time, when the action is impressive, it’s thrilling. The show occasionally finds ways to integrate its many concepts into inventive sequences pulsing with real suspense. And while many of the primary actors aren’t completely engaging, the supporting players often steal the show. In particular, Ato Essandoh and Hayley Law are given surprisingly meaty roles, while Chris Conner, who plays the artificial intelligence Poe, is the best part of the whole thing—getting the funniest lines and the most heartfelt moments.
Altered Carbon is quite the mixed bag. Hardcore sci-fi fans will likely find much to feast on, while more casual TV fans might struggle to get through its 10 episodes. The show represents an exciting future for Netflix, who continue to challenge the limits of what TV can achieve. But it also makes many of the same mistakes that other Netflix shows make. There’s a middle ground here somewhere—a place where ambition does not have to outrun execution, nuance, and feeling. Altered Carbon isn’t really the bridge for this divide, but it acts as another stepping-stone toward that happy medium.
Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix on February 2.