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‘Altered Carbon’ review: Violent yet riveting sci-fi

Joel Kinnaman hunts for a murderer on

Joel Kinnaman hunts for a murderer on "Altered Carbon." Credit: Netflix / Katie Yu

THE SHOW “Altered Carbon”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Super soldier, or “Envoy,” Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee) is killed, then brought back to life a couple hundred years later in the body — or “sleeve,” in the lingo of “Altered Carbon” — of Elias Ryker (Joel Kinnaman). Bay City plutocrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) has a job for him: He wants Kovacs/Ryker to find the person who murdered him -- Bancroft himself. In “Carbon,” people’s minds are downloaded into so-called “cortical stacks,” which can be used in any body. Once that body dies, you simply stick it in another. Bancroft has afforded many such sleeves over the centuries. Kovacs, naturally, has a complicated back story, too, and his own virtual Yoda, so to speak, who guides him, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). When he arrives in Bay City (once San Francisco), Kovacs checks into a bizarre hotel, the Raven, run by a bizarre proprietor, Poe (Chris Conner). Kovacs then secures a pair of friends who will help in his mission — cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) and former soldier Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh). This 10-episode series is based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel.

MY SAY Like all good cyberpunk, “Altered Carbon” makes you weep for the future. The cities are teeming and endless. Buildings soar into an invisible sky, and the traffic along with them. The dark streets below reek of base human drives, mostly sex on an industrial scale. God is dead, but people can be immortal — for a price. Technology has supplanted the mind, the soul, the whole human package. We are a packet of circuits, or “cortical stacks,” while our bodies are as disposable as Kleenex. No wonder Kovacs is in a bad mood most of the time.

The same operating principle of “Black Mirror” also operates here, but with a vastly gaudier sweep. As Kovacs explains, “Technology advances, but humans don’t. We’re smart monkeys and what we want is always the same: food, shelter, sex in all its forms.” It’s left to one of the bad guys to further distill this piece of wisdom: “We became hungry for things that reality could no longer offer,” he says. “The lines blurred.”

In “Carbon,” they’re actually obliterated, along with the “sleeves” — a countless number of those, by the way. The violence is searing, eventually numbing, ultimately mindless. Like “Westworld,” the idea seems to be that if the body is expendable, then no reason not to expend a few of them. In “Westworld,” the corpses go back into the shop for a quick overhaul. A removable “stack” does the trick here.

If you can get past that violence, or even through it, there’s much to savor. Morgan’s novel has been turned into a phantasmagoria of sights, sounds and details. An intricate alt-reality, both virtual and otherwise, has been constructed scene by scene. Some of those require multiple viewings to appreciate that intricacy, or to begin to make sense of it.

Yes, “Altered Carbon” can be confusing. Some transitions will give you whiplash, some of the logic a migraine. So to paraphrase Kovacs, the best advice on this point is to just let it wash over you. Don’t think, just experience. Let the blues soak in. Let the crepuscular gloom seep in, too. This adaptation is onto something, whatever that “something” is. (I saw only the first six episodes.)

Most of all, enjoy Poe and his wonderful “Raven Hotel.” Then check Expedia to see if there are any rooms available.

BOTTOM LINE Insanely violent, but, yup, often beautiful and intoxicating. A mind-bender that can be worth the bender.

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