The Buzz: Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' Is a Stylish Guilty Pleasure

As a genre, film noir is responsible for a number of seminal classics: The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential. Films that expertly merge the lurid exploits of policemen and private eyes with grander, more poignant observations about mankind. They are the film noir as art, the proverbial cream of the crop as it were. But noir isn’t always laden with meaning. In fact, some of the genre’s most entertaining outings have come in films that forgo complexity (and frankly, originality) for perverse thrills. The ridiculous plot twists, the commitment to visual  extravange, the threat of sex or violence looming over every scene-- its a volatile brew, but one that always goes down smooth. 

Netflix’s new series Altered Carbon is a proud descendant of the latter. Not only does it revel in all the aspects I mentioned above, it pushes them to what can only be described as their breaking point. The action is gratuitous and frequent, and the sex scenes veer into ‘90s Cinemax mode on occasion. The characters are cold and largely generic when they aren’t badgering others for information or trying to play an angle. Yes, technically these things are bad. But Altered Carbon executes them with such vigor that it’s hard not to get swept up in the sleazy intrigue. 

The series takes place in the distant future, where death has become obsolete. Physical bodies are merely seen as containers for our eternal consciousness, and can be swapped out at will. The catch, of course, being a dystopian world, is that only the rich have access to high-quality bodies, leaving the poor to fall into permanent “sleep” or make due with what they can afford. There’s an inkling of social commentary here, but that never really comes to the forefront. Instead, we get a fantastically outlandish premise where one of the aforementioned rich, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), needs help solving his own murder, and brings a detective named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) back from the dead to solve it. 

Kovacs, to put it mildly, is a bitter man. He’s molded in the likeness of the classic noir detective, grimacing through an existence he can barely stand-- especially now that death is no longer an option. The only catharsis, it seems, is through violence. Every episode sees Kovacs get caught in a gory shootout, and scene transitions will sometimes depict stabbing, torture, and dismembered bodies in graphic detail. In watching one of the interrogation scenes, I was struck by how much the character resembled Mike Hammer, the detective in the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. Both Kovacs and Hammer are dim by sleuthing standards, but their proficiency at causing pain to get what they need implies a darker, sadomasochistic bend. That this is never made explicit is a good thing, as doing so would take away much of their unspoken gravitas. A series of flashbacks show Kovacs in his original body (where he is played by Will Yun Lee), though they serve less to develop him and more to hammer home his nihilist outlook on the world. In case it wasn’t already apparant.

Kinnaman may have seemed like an odd choice for Kovacs, given his thin build and the goofy charisma he showcased on AMC’s The Killing. It works mainly because of the commitment he brings to the role, and his ability to say lines like “You’re gonna get yourself real-deathed” while keeping a straight face. The rest of the cast here is fine, adequately filling in the scenes where Kinneman isn’t hurting someone or Purifoy isn’t hamming it up as a client who has a great many things to hide. 

Beyond the extreme nature of the story, audiences will be drawn in by Altered Carbon’s exquisite style. Pulling from only the finest tech-noirs, including the Matrix trilogy, the Blade Runner films, and the cult classic Dark City, the series quickly sets up an aesthetic that’s complimentive to the story and inherently pleasing to the eye. Neon signs dart the skyline of the city, shining down beams of purple light on the lower class that gives them a nauseating sheen. Contrasted with the sterile whites of the upper class interiors, it makes the divide between them all the more prominent.

Altered Carbon definitely has its shortcomings, from the stilted dialogue to the ten episode runtime-- one that, like so many Netflix shows, could drastically be cut down-- but the lurid treatment it gives to its story may prove too enticing to pass up. It’s sexy and violent and dumb in all the right ways. In other words, the very definition of a guilty pleasure. 

All ten episodes of Altered Carbon are currently available for streaming on Netflix.