In their watershed sci-fi epic The Matrix, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski blended their innovative techniques and meticulous, fussy visuals with a singular, unsettling superhero origin story. The result was one of the most seamless marriages of style and substance in the past quarter-century of film. But the Wachowskis frittered away the goodwill The Matrix earned them with its pair of sloppy, stilted sequels, which made a compelling two-pronged argument that the sibling writer-directors aren’t aware that style and substance are distinct qualities.
Even as the Wachowskis’ taste level has been called further into question, they’ve managed to build a respected brand. They’ve populated their post-Matrix-trilogy resumé with more aesthetically luxe, quasi-spiritual genre projects like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, films that aren’t satisfying, but manage to acquit themselves on ambition alone.
With Sense8, Netflix’s new sci-fi ensemble drama, the Wachowskis make their series television debut, and as with many of their films, the show jukes any facile qualitative judgment you can throw at it. Whether Sense8 is succeeding or failing from scene to scene—and it does plenty of both—usually doesn’t seem terribly relevant because the show is so visually breathtaking, and because it manages to make a familiar premise feel genuinely fresh. Sense8 has the look and feel of interesting television, even in its goofiest moments. Put simply, Sense8 is directly on-brand for the Wachowskis, and how viewers react to the show will depend greatly on their general regard for that brand, which more often than not, requires the audience to absorb a ton of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo before it gets rewarded with balletic action cinema.
Sense8 flits about the globe, cutting between eight twentysomethings, separated by miles, oceans, languages, and cultures, and plagued by auditory and visual hallucinations for which they have no explanation. The octet is stocked with thin, pencil-sketched characters, including a guilt-ridden Chicago beat cop (Brian J. Smith), a closeted gay actor living in Mexico City (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a Korean executive who moonlights as a kickboxer (Doona Bae), and a conscientious Kenyan bus driver (Aml Ameen) under immense financial pressure. While they aren’t well-articulated characters, they don’t necessarily have to be, since the secret of Sense8 is that the characters equal more than the sum of their parts. They share a mysterious psychic connection that allows them to freely share and borrow one another’s knowledge, skills, and emotions, the result of an evolutionary experiment that enables them to enjoy all the benefits of a protective flock even when they’re flying solo.
Sense8 begins with Angel (Daryl Hannah) and Jonas (Naveen Andrews), members of a previous psychically linked cohort who activate the next generation’s abilities and try to keep them safe from other former participants who have gone rogue and seek to exterminate others like them. But before the audience can get used to them, the show is globetrotting to its other appointments. The pilot lumbers under the sheer volume of characters, situations, and locations it has to introduce, and there isn’t much time to get acquainted with any of them.
Of the new crop of “sensates,” the only one with whom the audience gets quality time is Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a San Francisco-based trans woman battling a terminal illness. The early focus on Nomi is a wise choice. Thanks to Clayton’s natural presence, Nomi makes an impression more quickly than the other passengers in her consciousness carpool, and the character is especially fascinating within the context of Lana Wachowski’s gender transition. Orange Is The New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent beat Sense8 to the inclusion of a transgender character, but it’s all the more poignant as written by someone who knows first-hand what that transition is like.
The series, created by the Wachowskis and their Speed Racer collaborator J. Michael Straczynski, invites comparisons with Cloud Atlas with its disparate ensemble of characters and the inclusion of Tom Tywker, who co-directed the film with the siblings. But in spite of its new age leanings, Sense8 is far more earthbound than Cloud Atlas. It’s closer to being Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel as reimagined by genre auteurs. Sense8 is equally invested in exploring the universality of human suffering, it just does so with characters whose hive mind makes them better suited to fight back. In many cases, the fighting back is literal, as in one of the best sequences in the three episodes screened for critics, in which a character is able to deploy a fellow sensate’s martial arts expertise to fend off a crew of goons.
The action sequences look phenomenal, as do the panoramic views of Sense8’s many far-flung locales, which include London, Berlin, Seoul, and Mumbai. The look of the series isn’t as painterly as the Wachowskis’ usual output, a move that appears to be less about budgetary prudence and more about the need to keep the threats and consequences tethered to the real world. But Sense8 is still remarkably stylized, which comes in handy when the story and the characters fail to generate enough heat on their own.
With so many crudely drawn characters, most of whom never interact face to face, and a less-is-more approach to explaining the origin and goal of the sensate experiments, Sense8’s sumptuous visuals are its only consistent selling point. But usually, the look is all Sense8 needs, since it has far too many moving pieces to enroll the audience in trying to assemble them into a larger picture. The Wachowskis may never create anything again like The Matrix, their only piece with a story as good as the film was good-looking. But in the series format, and with binge-watching as an option, the Wachowskis are able to achieve complete sensory and narrative overload. Sense8 is so busy, staring idly without digging below its surface feels like the most appropriate way to consume it.