When the Wachowski sisters’ globe-trotting sci-fi series Sense8 was cancelled after two seasons, there was petition-signing uproar from an intense fanbase who demanded to know why their favourite new show was coming to a sudden end. While it had clearly struck a chord with some, the problem faced by Netflix was the galaxy-high budget attached to such intricate world-creation. By season two, episodes were costing a reported $9m a pop, only slightly less than the established blockbuster Game of Thrones, and the show’s dedicated yet niche audience wasn’t deemed enough of a reason to sustain such extravagance.
Its failure, taken along with dismal box office results for Valerian and Blade Runner 2049 last year, also indicates a larger genre problem. Unless it benefits from tried and tested franchise recognition (hello Star Wars), ambitious, universe-building science fiction is unlikely to break out beyond hardcore fans. The success of more grounded shows like Black Mirror and The Man in the High Castle offers further proof of what a wider audience actually wants to see.
This makes Netflix’s latest offering an intriguing gamble.
It’s an adaptation of Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon, set in a future where our minds are stored on “stacks”, discs that live in the back of our necks. It’s a development that turns bodies into mere “sleeves” and so a traditional death just means movement from one bag of flesh to the next. Takeshi Kovacs is a violent mercenary who wakes up 300 years after his sleeve is killed to find the world a very different place and himself in a very different body, that of the House of Cards and The Killing actor Joel Kinnaman. He’s given an unlikely option: he can spend the rest of his life behind bars or help solve the “murder” of Earth’s wealthiest man.
Even those who don’t connect with the first episode of Altered Carbon will find it hard to fault the sheer ambitious scale of it all. While specific figures haven’t been released, Kinnaman has referred to it as “a world that’s got a bigger budget than the first three seasons of Game of Thrones” and from the outset it’s on flashy display. This is a Netflix show you shouldn’t binge on your phone: it demands a bigger screen so you can appreciate the neon-lit Blade Runner-esque noirish excess of the city that’s been created. One of the problems with small screen sci-fi in recent years is that as an audience, we’re spoiled by what cinema can offer us and the understandably more modest visuals often pale in comparison. While Altered Carbon might not be on par with, say, last year’s Blade Runner 2049, it’s an impressive step up from what we’re usually offered.
Aside from the aesthetic pleasures, there’s something enjoyably unhinged about the plot, which luridly veers from gratuitous nudity to gratuitous violence to gratuitous silliness (there are no half-measures in the future). It feels like something that might have been cast aside by Paul Verhoeven, who would have probably found the lack of social commentary a bit too tame for his tastes. Kinnaman is fine as the lead, his physical presence selling the more action-heavy elements, yet he’s a tad uninspiring when the script demands heavier lifting. As his potential new employer, James Purefoy is as hammy as you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a James Purefoy performance before.
The dialogue ranges from the bad (“Some people just need killing”) to the almost charmingly nutty (“Have you ever heard of full-spectrum DHF remote storage backup?”) and the pace is fast enough to make the dumber elements feel more palatable. There are echoes of so many sci-fi films that have come before and it’s questionable as to whether Altered Carbon will find a sleeve that feels more stridently unique. But in its early stages, it’s refreshing to see a show so unashamed about its pulpiness. The spectacle might grow stale but for now, the flash is blinding.