For reasons that weren’t immediately clear, Ed Sheeran’s pop hit “Shape of You” kept coming to mind throughout the first few hours of “Altered Carbon.” The year-old banger (pun intended) has no practical place in Netflix’s neo-noir sci-fi series, and yet it could’ve slipped into any number of scenes, especially the sex scenes, the fight scenes, or the sexy naked fight scenes. Yet for as catchy as Sheeran’s breakout song can be, there’s something really, really creepy about its chorus. “I’m in love with the shape of you,” the “Game of Thrones” star croons, over and over, as the rhythm hastens along with the hearts of so many teenage fans. “Every day, discovering something brand new / I’m in love with the shape of you.”
That’s great, Ed, but maybe don’t dwell on the physical side of things so much. If you want to throw me a generic bone, maybe my heart is worth noticing, or take it a step further and sing about my oh-so-sexy mind. And there it is: That’s the reason an annoying, hyper-sexualized radio jam felt right at home in what appears to be a high-minded prestige drama: Both are in love with our bodies, but they don’t stimulate the mind.
“Altered Carbon” is a hollow shell of a series about hollow shells of people. Set in the distant future, Netflix’s big budget, CGI extravaganza asks grand questions about the meaning of life, what makes us human, and how science and religion can connect, but this body-swapping drama takes things far too literally, and sucks the life out of its subjects in doing so.
Poorly structured for an emotional impact and featuring a frigid lead performance from Joel Kinnaman, “Altered Carbon’s” biggest takeaway is in its memorably superficial depiction of human bodies. It stabs them, shoots them, chops them up, and beats them down; it watches them have sex, take showers, fall asleep, and often combines the nudity with the violence for some silly naked fight scenes. Every so often, Season 1’s disturbingly intense focus on flesh proves compelling, but “Altered Carbon” never fully comes to life.
[Editor’s Note: The first page of the review is spoiler-free. For “Altered Carbon” spoilers and a final grade for Season 1, please proceed to page No. 2.]
OK, Here’s the Spoiler-Free Set-Up
On its surface, “Altered Carbon” is a neo-noir murder-mystery not wholly unlike “Blade Runner” in look and story, if vastly different in execution. In the future, a trained agent is brought out of retirement for a secret job with wide-reaching moral and practical ramifications. That agent isn’t a Blade Runner, but a former resistance fighter whose “retirement” was actually his own death, and he’s been brought back to life by the very person he was fighting against. To summarize, as briefly as possible:
In his old life, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) joined a terrorist organization that was fed up with the unequal distribution of wealth, and thus the growing disparity in power. You see, in this future world, no one has to die; a person’s consciousness can be downloaded onto a cortical stack — or a small disc lodged in the back of your neck. When a body (or a “sleeve”) dies, your brain can be downloaded into a new one. But buying sleeves can get expensive, especially good ones — like the toned and trained physiques nakedly on display throughout “Altered Carbon” — so the wealthiest citizens (known as “Meths”) get to live forever in sky-bound cities while “Grounders” scrape and scrum in the dirt to survive just one lifetime.
Kovacs doesn’t like that, for reasons that should be obvious, but his group of rebels, called “Envoys,” is decimated, and he dies before he can stand trial. Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, he’s brought back from the dead in a new body– sorry, a new sleeve, in order to solve a mystery. Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) wants him to find out who killed him, and yes, you read that right: Bancroft’s old sleeve was found on the floor of his home with his stack blown out the back of his head. The only reason his mind survived is because he’s rich enough to afford a “remote storage backup,” but that backup does not include memories of his death or who killed him. The police think he killed himself, but Bancroft argues his death is too messy for that — he wouldn’t have made so many obvious mistakes.
Bancroft offers Kovacs a full-pardon, a new sleeve, and a small fortune if he finds out who really did it, so even though Kovacs is morally opposed to Bancroft’s way of life, he takes the case. In the early episodes, he recruits a few helpers — an ex-military officer named Vernon (Ato Essandoh), who’s experienced a loss of his own, and his hotel concierge Poe (Chris Conner), who’s a robot infused with advanced artificial intelligence — but he’s haunted by memories from his past life and his body’s past life. People think Kovacs is some guy named Ryker, the man who had the sleeve before him, and he turns to police Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) — who’s been suspiciously eyeing him since he was hired by Bancroft — to help him straighten things out.
OK, Here’s the Spoiler-Free Analysis
That’s a ton of exposition to get through, and, to its credit, “Altered Carbon” does a decent job of setting everything up without boring the audience to tears. But it never stops talking. Where “Blade Runner” is confident enough in its big questions to let Vangelis’ synth score and Jordan Cronenweth’s telling visuals breathe life into the story, “Altered Carbon” is overrun by redundant jibber-jabber.
Creator Laeta Kalogridis is so worried the audience will get lost in her overly complicated plot, there’s no time given to reflect on broader themes. Characters explicitly guide you through everything. They tell viewers what to think about; they steer you in directions you know are misleading, and then they whip you back around in exhaustingly overworked “twists.” (Don’t worry. We’ll get into the twists later.)
From Kovacs going back and forth about whether to take the case you know he’ll take — otherwise, there would be no show — all the way through the final reveal regarding a character who’s clearly been bad all along, “Altered Carbon” delays the inevitable as often as it represses its emotional stakes. There’s no good reason to care about Kovacs until Episode 3; it takes until Episode 4 before you give a shit about Ortega, and it’s longer, if ever, for many of the other characters. (I dare you to come up with a good reason to invest in Bancroft, the “victim” whose near-death is driving the whole story, before the final episode.)
As far as the two main characters go, their motivations are kept in the dark so long that by the time they come out, it’s too late. Viewers are asked to keep watching because they understand both of them have jobs to do; he’s working a case to save his life, and she’s a cop who’s doing cop things. But having a job to do is different from purpose. It’s as if the writers hope you’re so enamored by the case itself (doubtful), the naked bodies (more likely), and all that action (meh) that you won’t worry about investing in Kovacs and Ortega as people.
Later on, the series fills in their personal backstories to a rather exhausting degree, but they’re there, effectively (if not efficiently) explained. It’s enough to show these writers aren’t solely interested in spectacle, but no matter how you slice it, there’s no emotional impact. There are issues, to be sure, with the depiction of human flesh in “Altered Carbon,” but it’s hard to discuss without spoiling. So before we do just that, for anyone still deciding whether or not to watch, think twice before clicking “next episode” after the premiere; the answers are coming, but it’s not worth the journey.