(CNN)Netflix has taken more than a few flyers on big, splashy, time-wasting projects, and "Altered Carbon" -- a sci-fi experiment gone awry -- joins that pantheon of the quickly forgettable. Based on Richard K. Morgan's novel, the series looks great -- starting with Joel Kinnaman, who spends a lot of time showing off his commitment to the gym -- but in terms of substance, offers little more than an empty sleeve.
'Altered Carbon' yields muddled sci-fi formula on Netflix
"Sleeves," as it happens, figure prominently in the convoluted plot, which is set hundreds of years in the future. Consciousness, by then, has been digitized, allowing the wealthy to transfer their minds into new bodies (or sleeves) -- fulfilling the promise, as the voice-over narration puts it, to "live forever, if you've got the cash."
Into this strange, dystopian world comes Kinnaman's Takeshi Kovacs, a handsome sleeve for a long-dormant warrior who dared to rebel against the established order. His not-to-be-trusted benefactor is the super-rich Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who thawed Kovacs out to use as an agent/hired gun in solving his "murder," before Bancroft hopped into his current form.
Kovacs winds up becoming allied with a cop, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), just to make this feel like a conventional TV show despite being wrapped in space-age trappings. But unless you're an avid fan of Morgan's book, odds are most viewers will spend two or three episodes grasping the rules of this strange society, as the subplots pile up and the murder mystery recedes in importance -- and interest.
There's lots of action, sex and grisly violence, but the mind-bending (or really, mind-transferring) concept works against caring about the characters, given the murky gap between getting killed and actually being dead. And while the underlying plot would seem to possess timely parallels regarding the abuses of the one percent -- including a description of those who are so wealthy that "they answer to no one and cannot die" -- the series is too awash in its own wretched excess to register as a convincing commentary.
The messiness of "Altered Carbon" largely squanders its good supporting cast. That includes Purefoy, a compelling actor who disappears for long stretches; and Renee Elise Goldsberry ("Hamilton") as a figure from Kovacs' past.
With its serialized story, the opportunity to binge the 10-episode series will likely be enough incentive for some of those who sample it to stick around, but the payoff, frankly, doesn't really reward patience. Netflix has clearly sunk another small fortune into producing "Altered Carbon," and comes away with an expensive dud -- one of those enticing-from-a-distance dramas that merely demonstrates you really can't judge a book (or a TV show based on one) by its glossy cover.
"Altered Carbon" premieres Feb. 2 on Netflix.