“Altered Carbon,” which begins streaming Friday on Netflix, adapts Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel into a 10-episode television series starring Joel Kinnaman as space-warrior turned detective Takeshi Kovacs. Its strategy, not unique among science fiction stories, is to adapt the tone and tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction to futuristic sci-fi, which is why its rainy, neon-noir vision of San Francisco some centuries hence (now called Bay City) may remind you strongly of “Blade Runner.”
In the crazy future Morgan envisions, brought to colorful life by series creator Laeta Kalogridis (“Terminator Genisys”), human consciousness is downloaded into a “stack,” a gizmo slid into every person’s cervical vertebrae at age 1. These stacks can be swapped into new bodies — or “sleeves” — when the old ones break. Additionally, the information they contain can also be “needlecast” across great distances into waiting empty vessels, allowing instant travel not merely between Atchison and Topeka, but Earth and distant planets, where there is a sort of Imperial Stormtroopers versus Rebel Alliance thing going on. (Pay attention, it’s important.) Consciousness can also be uploaded into virtual reality, in which not a little of “Altered Carbon” takes place.
Not surprisingly, this system mostly benefits the rich, who can buy flashy “designer-enhanced” corpses to inhabit, who keep banks of clones at hand the way you might have a drawer of clean underwear, and back up their consciousness to personal satellites for added security. As Irene Cara sang in “Fame,” they want to live forever, up in their towering sky-mansions accessible only by flying car (again, see “Blade Runner”). But as with vampires, virtual immortality exacts a price: Kicks just keep getting harder to find, as Paul Revere & the Raiders sang in “Kicks,” and the .01% play around with death – other people’s – to feel alive.
As we open, the mind of Kovacs, first played by actor Will Yun Lee, and the last of the Envoys – the Rebel Alliance folks mentioned above – awakens in Kinnaman’s long, tall Swedish-born body. With his semi-superhuman skills, Kovacs has been brought back out of stack prison, where he has languished for 250 years, to do a job for mega-mogul Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who wants him to solve a murder – his! Someone blew off the head of Bancroft’s previous body but, owing to the timing of his scheduled brain backup, a gap in his memory leaves him clueless as to the killer. (It might have been suicide.)
A sort of Scooby Gang coheres around Kovacs, including Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who is angry; a former Marine with tech skills (Ato Essandoh) grieving for a daughter (Hayley Law) caught in a virtual-reality “trauma loop”; and Poe (a comically touching Chris Conner), the dignified, computer-generated embodiment of the Raven hotel, where Kovacs is the first guest in five decades. Kovacs also chats in his mind with long-lost sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) and Envoy guru Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), whose aphorisms he also quotes, in voice-over.
As in martial arts and superhero movies, the amount of punishment these characters can take is so outrageous that the violence hardly registers as violence. The fight scenes, which come along often enough, are well staged – Lachman is your new action heroine, Hollywood – but also in a way tedious; there are only so many knives to the gut or bullets to the head before they become a blur. I felt something of the same about the sex scenes, for that matter, which also come along often enough. (The nudity is premium-cable copious and mostly female, but Kinnaman and Purefoy and a few random dudes balance that scale a little.) And it’s worth pointing out that this is very much a story that runs on — though it does not recommend — violence against women.
The series is convoluted, digressive and long. (Even “True Detective” only took eight episodes to solve a mystery, and Miss Marple could do it in 60 minutes, or 90 at a stretch.) You may forget by the end what the beginning was about, as the main case is clouded by others. (From what I can gather, there are elaborations upon and departures from Morgan’s text, and so these reverses may feel surprising to readers as well.) You’ll be watching a scene that feels like the climax, only to check and find you’ve still got another two or three or four episodes to go; you think things are coming to a head, and suddenly a caper movie is beginning. Eventually, you do arrive at the end, which has a certain mathematical balance and, despite (or perhaps because of) some corniness, prompts deeper feelings than you might have expected.
Whatever else, for fans of Stephen Holder, the character Kinnaman played on “The Killing,” “Altered Carbon” puts the actor back in detective mode. His body has been muscled to a fare thee well, and energetic use is put to it. But when he is not dispatching thugs who have come to dispatch him, there is that old Holder music, skeptical and laconic, as he spars with foes and with the friends he slowly lets past that tough exterior. It’s good to hear it again.
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd