The new Netflix dystopian sci-fi series “Altered Carbon” asks a lot of provocative questions: Would you want to live forever? And should eternal life only be available to the super-rich?
Rather than leading to a thought-provoking answer, those questions instead often lead to an ultra-violent action sequence or a lurid sex scene. It’s that kind of TV show, more “Game of Thrones” than “Electric Dreams.”
Taken on those terms, “Altered Carbon,” based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, is a lot of fun, with terrific production values, stylish visuals, and some mind-frying concepts that make some cogent points about the ethical questions facing our own time. Maybe, once the gunfire stops ringing in our ears, we’d have time to think about them.
“Altered Carbon” is set on Earth in 2384, a future where corporations control everything, environmental disasters are rampant, and people can download their consciousnesses into “stacks,” little digital cubes that you can pop in and out of the back of your neck like a SIM card in a smartphone. When the body dies (or even when you just get tired of it), the “stack” can just be popped into a new body (called a “sleeve”) for unlimited life. The super-rich are even able to backup their consciousnesses to a “cloud,” so even if the stack gets destroyed, they can still live forever.
The show follows Takeshi Kovacs (Byron Mann), a former resistance fighter whose “stack” was popped out and put on a shelf for 250 years, punishment for his crimes against the regime. But Kovacs is “resurrected” into a new body (Joel Kinnaman of “The Killing”) at the behest of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the richest man in the world. Bancroft literally lives in the clouds, in a floating mansion so high that he can't see what a cesspool the world he owns has become.
Bancroft wants Kovacs to find out who “killed” him — he’s since had his stack put in a new body. One of the many fun things about “Altered Carbon” is that, for all the sci-fi trappings, it’s at heart an old-fashioned mystery in the vein of a Raymond Chandler detective novel. Bancroft was even alone, locked in his study, when he was killed — a classic whodunit puzzle.
“Altered Carbon” is really violent. The first episode both starts and ends with a massive, bloody gun battle, so it’s not for the squeamish. The show keeps raising interesting questions about its world (What about Christians who refuse to be resurrected?) only to abandon them for more action. It’s a good time for sci-fi/action fans, but maybe in a future season it could resurrect itself as something a little more substantial.
Also on streaming: Netflix surprised sci-fi viewers by airing an ad for its new movie “The Cloverfield Paradox” during the Super Bowl and then immediately posting it online for streaming, nearly three months ahead of its scheduled premiere. “Paradox,” a spiritual sequel of sorts to “Cloverfield” and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” was reportedly supposed to play in theaters, but was dumped by Paramount Pictures to Netflix after concerns that it wouldn’t do well at the box office. The reviews so far have not been kind.
Think of Amazon Prime’s “Absentia” as sort of a really, really dark twist on “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Stana Katic (“Castle”) plays an FBI agent who is abducted and held prisoner for six years. When she is finally freed, she tries to figure out who was responsible and piece her life back together. The show premiered last Friday.
George Clooney is David Letterman's guest on the next episode of "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," which premieres Friday on Netflix. I just hope Clooney can get over his on-camera shyness and tell a charming story or two.