Review: Cop story visually upgraded in ‘Altered Carbon’

The Netflix series looks great but its storyline isn’t anything you haven’t seen before

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Your monthly subscription fees are on full display in “Altered Carbon,” the splashy Netflix sci-fi series that certainly looks like a $100-million Hollywood blockbuster.

Joel Kinnaman stars as Takeshi Kovacs in “Altered Carbon.”

The series combines the gritty, futuristic film noir look of “Blade Runner” and colors it with shades of its successors, including “Ghost in the Shell,” “The Matrix” and “Minority Report.” It’s certainly a lush, expansive eye-popper.

If only its story was as rich as its visuals.

Based on Richard Morgan’s acclaimed 2002 cyberpunk novel, “Altered Carbon” unfolds 350 years from now in a future where people treat bodies — or “sleeves,” as they’re called here — like disposable, temporary shells. Minds and consciousness (referred to as “stacks”) are forever, bodies are like wrappers. “Your body is not what you are,” we learn in voiceover in the series’ opening moments. “You shed it like a snake sheds its skin.”

Martha Higareda, Joel Kinnaman in “Altered Carbon.”

We meet ex-soldier Takeshi Kovacs (Byron Mann) as he is embroiled in a violent shootout in the series premiere. Following his death, Kovacs is transferred into the body of Joel Kinnaman, the chiseled Swedish actor who plays him for most of the season, although we do occasionally flash back to the past, when he’s played by another actor, Will Yun Lee. Try to keep up.

Kovacs is hired by a rich one-percenter, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), to solve a murder — Bancroft’s own murder, to be exact. Kovacs is hesitant but takes the job, and becomes a brooding detective-type, not fit for this world (insert long drag of cigarette here).

And so for all its fancy production design, “Altered Carbon” becomes a rather typical cop story, albeit one with copious violence, blood and gratuitous nudity. Its hard-boiled narration is ripped from the pages of 1,000 gumshoe novels, and Kinnaman (the lead actor in the “Robocop” reboot) often comes off as stiff (and nearly as ripped) as John Cena.

Will Yun Lee in “Altered Carbon.”

The story is lightened up by Poe (Chris Conner), an A.I. who runs the Raven, the Edgar Allan Poe-themed hotel Kovacs calls home. Poe is a kind of all-seeing, all-knowing butler figure, and Conner’s portrayal brings a needed dash of humor to the series. He’s like Michael Sheen’s robot bartender in “Passengers,” equal parts witty and snooty, and he’s a gas when he shows up in full Day of the Dead garb in the season’s fourth episode.

There’s also a parallel story about Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a cop who is also investigating Bancroft’s murder. Her storyline frequently crosses paths with Kovacs’ but isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

Violence abounds in “Altered Carbon.”

“Altered Carbon” covers a lot of the same dystopian futuristic terrain as “Black Mirror,” but given its structural limitations, “Black Mirror” gets there quicker and makes sharper points. Big issues of body, mind, identity and technology shuffle around the “Altered Carbon” universe, but the show often drags its feet in order to fill its individual episodes’ running times.

But there is plenty to admire in this series from a visual standpoint, and “Altered Carbon” doesn’t skimp on its luxe look, which far outshines most network dramas and parallels big ticket cable offerings. There are cool weapons, audacious fight scenes (including a wild, zero gravity fight scene set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2 from Jazz No. 2” in the series’ third episode) and an overall bold, cinematic sensibility. Keep the sleeve, dump the stack.

‘Altered Carbon’


Rated TV-MA for violence, nudity, language

Now streaming on Netflix