Roush Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ Is a Brutal Sci-Fi Noir

Ato Essandoh as Vernon Elliot and Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon
Altered Carbon

Words you’ll rarely hear in this dense, derivative and hyperviolent mashup of sci-fi nihilism and noir mystery: Life’s too short. Brevity also isn’t a virtue in Altered Carbon, the grueling, mind-teasing but also numbing 10-part adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk novel, set in a future world where, if you can afford it, you never have to die.

Though, all things considered, death might be a relief.

The deep pockets of Netflix allow for an astoundingly ambitious production design, even if the visual echoes of Blade Runner are so pronounced—rain, neon, murk—that royalties ought to be paid. Instead of lifelike replicants, Carbon traffics in reborn souls, with human consciousness transplanted from one body (or “sleeve”) into another, or into clones for the truly rich.

Best not to sweat the details when Takeshi Kovacs, a warrior “envoy” from a failed centuries-old uprising against the elite immortals, is revived after 250 years into the sleeve of a framed former cop. Lucky Kovacs, because the sculpted torso of laconic, sardonic Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) will be the envy of all binge-watching couch potatoes. Unlucky Kovacs as well, because he’s trapped between memories of his rebel past (when he was played by Will Yun Lee) and the perils of his new assignment: solving the murder—or was it suicide?—of his still sentient client, a debauched 360-year-old zillionaire (The Following’s James Purefoy, oozing smarm). Every twist of the convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying plot puts Kovacs, and his combative police officer partner Kristin Ortega (the terrific Martha Higareda), into gruesome situations that edge into torture porn.

Little wonder my favorite moments were whenever Kovacs takes refuge in a “living hotel” whose proprietor is an AI avatar of Edgar Allan Poe (a funny, persnickety Chris Conner).

There’s a lot going on here, including provocative discussions of mortality, religion and ethics: “Death was the ultimate safeguard against the darker angels of our nature,” preaches Kovacs’s revered combat mentor (a fierce Renée Elise Goldsberry). But mostly, Altered Carbon revels in the spectacle of bodies taking a licking and keeping on ticking. What fun.

Altered Carbon, Series Premiere, Friday, Feb. 2,  Netflix