Netflix's latest bid for the hearts (and wallets) of its viewers is a cyberpunk noir that initially channels Blade Runner before exploring deeper, darker territory of its own.
Based on the books of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon takes place in a future where humanity has created technology to "back up" the human mind in a "cortical stack" at the base of the neck. Your body can die or be killed, but if your "stack" survives, you can be reborn in a new body or "resleeved"... if you can afford it. The technology even enables interstellar travel as minds can be transmitted or "needlecast" to bodies on a different world.
As with the book, this 10 part series follows Takeshi Kovacs, a man with "a very particular set of skills™", who's been resleeved in the form of Joel Kinnaman after 250 years "on ice". The Last Envoy, Kovacs is a soldier trained for needlecasting into an unfamiliar body on a new world and adapting to his surroundings as quickly as possible. The only reason he's been resleeved is he's been hired (or more accurately "purchased") by the obscenely wealthy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) who wants Kovacs to investigate a murder. The victim? Laurens himself.
Wealthy enough to afford regular remote back-ups and multiple clones, Laurens was found with his stack blown out, right before his scheduled back-up. He's lost 48 hours of memory and he wants Kovacs to find out what happened.
Despite some initially dodgy performances, in particular, Kinnaman and Martha Higareda's stereotypical noir detective and hard-bitten cop routines, once the series, and Kovacs, finds its feet Altered Carbon develops into a well realised and engaging exploration of a dark dystopia.
It's not just the sex, language and excessive violence on display that earn the show it's mature rating but also the depravity of Morgan's world. One of VR torture where every injury can be inflicted over and over again; where stored minds can get trapped endlessly reliving nightmares, and where the wealthy have graduated to watching real pain, violence and mutilation for entertainment. It remains engaging however as unlike many TV sci-fi its reality is not differentiated from our own by just one major technological upgrade but a plethora of them.
Apart from the reuse of its single street set the effects are well done with as neat take on distinguishing VR from the real world.
While Kinnaman's world-weary detective shtick doesn't quite land, he is ably backed up by the rest of the cast, not least Byron Mann, playing Kovacs in an earlier body. Chris Conner's Poe is also a standout, as the personification of the AI that runs The Raven hotel where Kovacs makes his base of operations (no longer The Hendrix from the books).
While sticking fairly closely to the plot of the book, the series does tighten some things up for TV. Some characters are merged, some skipped and yet others invented from whole cloth, with closer relationships added between characters add more drama to the proceedings.
Altered Carbon may meander slightly in the middle episodes and doesn't quite stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the heavyweights of Netflix's original line up but it's a good start for a hopefully continuing series.
ALTERED CARBON / STARRING: JOEL KINNAMAN, MARTHA HIGAREDA, CHRIS CONNER, JAMES PUREFOY, KRISTIN LEHMAN, RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY, ATO ESSANDOH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW