"You are no longer just you. You have seven other selves."
Let's get something out of the way here: I am no big fan of the Wachowskis. After the highly promising indie Bound and groundbreaking masterpiece The Matrix, I thought their imagination began to exceed their grasp, more blatantly with each subsequent film they made (although V for Vendetta had the benefit of strong source material) and culminating in Speed Racer, which I refuse to watch ever again and wish I never had in the first place. (Damn you, Jason, for making it a birthday present). And yet when watching these films, even if you hate them, there's no denying that someone has clearly devoted thought and maybe even love to each - although it shows in some places much more clearly than others. In Sense8, style often kicks substance to the curb, but damn if that style isn't something to behold. That's probably the best that can be said for latter-day Wachowski projects: a creative force that refuses to be bound by convention, Hollywood standards, or - in some cases - logic.
Sense8, their new Netflix series (with all episodes streaming simultaneously as of last Friday), would seem to benefit from having J. Michael Straczynski on board. Straczynski is best known for his landmark series Babylon 5, which he planned out almost entirely in advance (and wrote over three-quarters of the show's 110 episodes alone), so if anyone can rein in the Wachowski's boundless imagination, surely it must be him. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case.
The premise focuses on eight people from totally disparate backgrounds and countries, born on the same day of the same year. We've got:
- Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Nairobi van driver who is financially desperate to help his AIDS-infected mother (and a Jean-Claude Van Damme fanatic, which automatically makes him awesome);
- Sun Bak (Doona Bae), a Korean executive and underground fighter;
- Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman hacktivist in San Francisco whose family rejects her;
- Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai), a Hindu pharmacist trapped in an arranged marriage;
- Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ hiding out in London;
- Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt), a safecracker and small-time crook in Berlin;
- Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a telenovella star; and
- Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith), a troubled Chicago cop.
In the opening scene, these eight are "mothered" by Angelica "Angel" Turing (Daryl Hannah), whose death causes their rebirths as "Sensates": mentally and emotionally connected, able to communicate, sense, and use each others knowledge, language and skills (the ways the show plays with this idea is one of its strongest traits). Obviously, such high-concept needs an opposing force, which here is Whispers (Terrence Mann), another Sensate who has decided to exterminate his own kind. And in the mentor seat we have Jonas Maliki (Lost's Naveen Andrews), who attempts to save this new batch and guide them to the truth about their connection.
Or something. If you're daunted by just how many main characters there are, you're just as poorly-prepared for this show as I was. Not that it's any help in the matter. That the Wachowskis co-wrote the entire series with Straczynski makes for a weird hybrid of their kitchen-sink approach and his more methodical style; this turns into a lot of tonal and structural inconsistencies that can confuse viewers. More than that, the sheer volume of storylines (the primary mythology, as well as at least one subplot for each character) threatens to overwhelm the show, the amount of screentime for each character varying wildly from one episode to the next. (The pilot, which has to introduce everything, very nearly collapses underneath the responsibility.) Like many of the Wachowskis' more recent projects (particularly Cloud Atlas), the scale is admirable, but the execution leaves something to be desired.
Sort of an interpretation of the Netflix business model established by House of Cards, Sense8 plays out like a 12-hour film more than a TV show, but that makes analyzing it on an episode-to-episode basis nearly impossible, because they don't really stand on their own. It takes nearly the entire season before the concept of a sensate really becomes clear, the rules continually being amended, or changed, or even outright ignored (something akin to Neo's powers in the Matrix sequels). Even with all that time, the show doesn't understand how to build up its world and characters in a way that does not seem forced. Big chunks of episodes (particularly the first four) are straight-up information dumps (Andrews is given the largely thankless role of being a fountain of exposition), and what dialogue isn't holding our hand is, for the most part, mediocre. If anything, Sense8 is more a show to be admired on its surface than really dug into.
It's too bad, because there are a lot of heady topics being tossed about. Although a lot of them are put into rather cliched trappings, themes of connection, spirituality, love, identity, and so on are weaved throughout and - in their own heavy-handed way - are given some real discussion. It helps that, in this Shondaland age of ethically diverse casting, the Wachowskis apply it in a genre and on a scale Ms. Rhimes probably wouldn't attempt. Besides being strewn across the globe, Sense8 also features leads are also transgender (Nomi) and a closeted homosexual (Lito). The latter gets some pretty interesting moments, while the former suffers a bit early on by making the gender a plot point, rather than a natural aspect of character (this is quickly righted, however). It's good that shows are interested in tackling such topics, even if it is often in broad strokes. The acting itself is uniformly fine, though Bae and Silvestre are favored for action scenes while Clayton and Desai get a lot of the more dramatic ones.
Sense8's biggest draw, however, is the thing that the Wachowskis have been selling since the first Matrix: a look and feel like nothing else you've seen. While more grounded than previous works, the cinematography, special effects, and action scenes are typically excellent, from a Bollywood-esque dance to the numerous martial-arts fights and gun battles. You really get a feel for the international scope, as the location shooting is gorgeous and the environments used in relevant ways without reducing it to "exotic" status. Few other projects can match the sense of scale on display, and it's clear no expense was spared. The siblings directed seven of the episodes, with the rest divided up amongst previous collaborators James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), Tom Twyker (Cloud Atlas) and Dan Glass (VFX supervisor since The Matrix Reloaded), and considering how similar all their styles are it only makes sense. Go into the show on a purely visceral level and you'll be blown away.
Sense8 is so far ahead of the curve on a visual level that it's narrative aspirations can only seem feeble and mawkish by comparison. There's more than enough ambition and just barely enough execution to make it worth watching, but bear in mind that the momentum generated by the action won't completely carry you over the mountain of exposition needed just to comprehend the thing. It's basically another in the modern Wachowski style, and if nothing else, it can be admired for its all-out tenacity.