You would think it's not a great time to be in the cyberpunk, post-humanist sci-fi market right now, considering the genre just hit a creative peak with last year's Blade Runner 2049, but Netflix's newest series, Altered Carbon, manages to defy the odds on diminishing returns – for the most part. Based on the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, the series pulls together plenty of threads from genre touchstones like Blade Runner, Strange Days, The Matrix, Neuromancer – and more than a little Neuromancer – into a slick and sexy package that often lives up to the works it's borrowing from.
The premise is – well – far from simple. In the very distant future, mankind has devised a way to cheat death by backing up human consciousness onto "stacks," implants placed in the spinal column. This allows humans to swap bodies (referred to as "sleeves") when theirs start breaking down, essentially letting them live forever, wealth permitting.
Super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann in flashbacks) wakes up after 250 years of suspended animation in a new body (played by a growling, deadpan Joel Kinnaman of The Killing). He's been brought back to the real world in order to solve a murder mystery for Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, The Following), a "meth." Short for "Methuselahs," the meths are an upper caste of extremely long-lived humans who basically live as gods, complete with pleasure palaces that reach up above the clouds. You know the old saying about the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer? Imagine that, but forever.
Bancroft enlists Kovacs to investigate why one of his own bodies was found in his study with his stack destroyed. Since the murder happened before Bancroft could back up his consciousness, he's lost 48 hours of memories that would have told him what happened. So it's up to a reluctant Kovacs to piece together Bancroft's lost weekend. Along the way, Kovacs teams up with Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a firebrand police detective with an ulterior interest in the case, and Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh, Chicago Med), a bereaved father with a grudge against meths.
The pulpy core plot – full of sex, violence and badass future guns – has plenty of twists and turns, like any good cyberpunk noir should. And while the ending of the first season – which implies that the producers are pretty sure they're going to get picked up for at least a second season – may not deliver on some of the promises made, it's quite a fun ride to get there.
High-minded ideas about the nature of the soul and the ethics behind resurrection are brought to the foreground in a variety of ways – including a major plot point about Catholics fighting legislation that would allow murder victims to be "spun up" and identify their murderers. But for every quiet discussion about the soul and the afterlife, there's a zero-gravity deathmatch or naked clone fight waiting in the wings to prevent things from getting dull, which tends to be both Altered Carbon's strength and weakness: In its eagerness to show off its flashy vision of the future, it tends to skip over the substance.
That flashy vision is pure, unadulterated popcorn fare, though. From shape-shifting synthetic bodies to sentient sex hotels with a penchant for Edgar Allan Poe (yes, this is a major part of the plot somehow), Altered Carbon does succeed in showing us some things we've never seen before, even while wrapping it all in familiar tropes (the loner detective; the literally stratified society that's been a science-fiction go-to since at least 1927's Metropolis) that might feel a little dated at times. But like all good sci-fi, it's enough to keep you wondering, "What will they think of next?"