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Andy and Lana Wachowski tend to think big — at least, they have ever since their iconic martial arts dystopian noir The Matrix (1999) introduced the world to “bullet time” and endeared the filmmaking siblings to both cosplaying fanboys and Jean Baudrillard-reading academics. None of the Wachowskis’ subsequent efforts have had anywhere near the same cultural resonance. And after their recent space opera, Jupiter Ascending (2015), landed with a resounding thud, their days helming wide-release theatrical blockbusters appeared numbered. A move to TV, where more and more feature filmmakers are migrating out of interest, necessity or both, would seem to be just what the doctor ordered. And happy to say, the siblings’ new Netflix series, Sense8, co-created with J. Michael Straczynski, shows them in revitalized form.
That’s not to say the virtues of this globe-hopping, emphatically sincere mix of sci-fi, action and melodrama are immediately apparent. The episodes sent out for review (12 installments were ordered in total) are a bit of a hodgepodge, especially in the early going. After an intriguing teaser sequence involving a strung-out Daryl Hannah (channeling her freak-flag-flying Pris from Blade Runner) and two mysterious men-at-odds played by Terrence Mann and Naveen Andrews, the story leaps between multiple locales, characters and tones with a chaotic abandon that suggests we’re watching another Cloud Atlas-sized folly.
That bizarre 2012 feature — a sort of new-age riff on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) that the Wachowskis and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer adapted from David Mitchell’s popular novel about transmigrating souls — featured a starry cast, a relentlessly cross-cut narrative, and half-baked themes about sexuality, gender, race and other sociopolitical millstones. Its reach far exceeded its grasp.
There’s a similar sense of sprawl here, though it ultimately captivates more than it repels. The production filmed entirely on location in nine cities, with the Wachowskis, Tykwer, visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, and V for Vendetta helmer James McTeigue sharing directorial responsibilities. John Toll serves as the series’ chief cinematographer, and does a terrific job bringing out the unique qualities (in terms of both architecture and community) of each setting. And there are almost as many main characters as there are locales: Chicago police officer Will (Brian J. Smith); San Francisco transgender activist Nomi (Jamie Clayton); London-residing Icelandic DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton); Berlin safecracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt); Mumbai pharmaceutical rep Kala (Tina Desai); closeted Mexico City movie star Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre); Nairobi bus driver Capheus (Aml Ameen); and Seoul businesswoman/underground fighter Sun (Doona Bae).
What do these eight people from all walks of life have in common? Not much beyond a vaguely defined (at least in the first three episodes) psychic connection that asserts itself at random moments. Riley suddenly finds herself in Chicago by Will’s side. Sun notices Capheus out of the corner of her eye during one of her matches. And at one point or another, each of the characters sees Andrews’ dulcet-voiced character Jonas, who speaks in cryptic snippets, and keeps his larger motivations (is he angel or devil?) in the dark. In one clever scene, he gives an arcane expository speech while seemingly teleporting between two cars involved in a high-speed chase.
The Wachowskis are no strangers to ambitious ideas wedded to a convoluted plot, but Sense8 feels much more purposeful than their other recent efforts. The influence of Straczynski — who honed his talents on the space station drama Babylon 5, which is often pointed to as an exceptional example of sustained television storytelling — is very apparent in the show’s steadily escalating level of intrigue. There’s always just enough teased that you want to know more, and though Straczynski has promised the season will end with all the mysteries explained, he’s worked out four more years worth of material should the series be renewed.
The actors are also an appealing bunch, much more so than in the gimmicky Cloud Atlas, where the copious makeup, prosthetics and overdone accents tended to trump any subtlety of character. Clayton is the standout, in large part because she brings her actual experience as a trans woman to bear on Nomi’s many ups and downs. There’s tremendous, lived-in pain when Nomi nearly breaks down while standing up to her intolerant mother, and a complementary sense of joy and ecstasy in each scene she shares with her loving girlfriend (beautifully played by Doctor Who alumna Freema Agyeman).
It’s typically been easier to root for the Wachowskis in theory. They bring a much-needed progressive perspective to the science fiction and fantasy genres (the forward-thinking empathy of Sense8 makes for an especially fascinating contrast with the reactionary cynicism of Netflix’s own Daredevil). Yet the siblings have frequently struggled to fully realize their ideas, too often failing to find the exact right balance between the silly and the sublime (multi-culti dance party in Matrix Reloaded, I’m looking at you). With Sense8, they finally achieve that harmony.
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