Altered Carbon review: is Netflix’s big-budget R-rated sci-fi show a success?

Death is not the end in the violent and stylish Altered Carbon

Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon novels have been on showrunner Laeta Kalogridis’ wishlist for years now and it’s easy to see the appeal: a Blade Runner-esque setting, endless cyberpunk twists, and a pissed-off morally ambiguous hero navigating a world of complex mythology and endless seediness as downloadable consciousnesses have made immortality a reality. All this combined with Netflix’s seemingly bottomless pockets and the carte blanche of the R-rating makes for a SF noir with a lot of potential.

Still, this first season is something of a mixed bag. It certainly starts with a bang and it’s superficially impressive: there’s incredible production design, thrilling action sequences and a striking, brutal class-structured society. Beneath that, there are problems with pacing, and its confrontational and repetitive depiction of a world in which (predominantly, but not exclusively, female) bodies have become disposable is clearly meant to provoke but it doesn’t quite walk the fine line it thinks it does. On the other hand, the body-swapping provides the series with some genuinely shocking and affecting moments, and Kalogridis’ conscientiousness as a showrunner is apparent in storylines in the latter half of the season that would be spoilery to discuss.

Our window into this sour future is Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman, getting to stretch more than usual and clearly enjoying it), a freedom fighter/terrorist who’s resurrected 250 years after his violent death into a muscle-bound, non-Asian body by the powerful and ancient Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, preening) to solve his recent murder. Kovacs is plunged into a world where death is no longer the end, where the rich can afford to live life for endless centuries and do whatever they want to the bodies of those less fortunate (so, a lot of sex, violence, torture and rape).

Kinnaman leads an impressive cast who sink their teeth into a lot of strong characters. Martha Higareda’s insubordinate cop Kristin Ortega is the standout, and Byron Mann, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Chris Conner and Hayley Law all impress. There’s also a big heart that (again) makes itself visible in the second half, but the show’s struggles to balance its whodunit with its world-building keep cropping up and when it slows down, the flaws become increasingly apparent. That inconsistency is so frustrating because there is a lot here that works.

At its best, the show feels like the fantasy of all those short-lived, under-funded ’90s sci-fi series that could only dream of this much budgetary and creative freedom. There are AI hotels (Conner’s impossibly loyal Poe is great fun), nightmare hacking, zero-G fights to the death and clone battles accompanying the genre staples and social commentary (and all that blood, swearing and nudity) but there are too many missteps for an unequivocal success. Still, we’ll be interested to see where it goes next.