Sense8 Is A Beautiful, Passionate, Violent Whirlwind Of HumanityPosted: June 13, 2015
Ah, THERE are the Wachowskis I know and love! After the disappointing flub that was Jupiter Ascending, I was yearning for the ambitious, boundary-pushing, flawed-yet-awesome storytelling sensibilities that brought us The Matrix, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. Now on Netflix, that yearning has been met and satisfied. Alongside J Michael Straczynski and a cavalcade of other collaborators (including Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer), the Wachowskis are back to their bizarre, aggressive selves with Sense8. It’s a sprawling and rough-hewn piece of storytelling, one that is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, and holding it all together is a red-blooded, earnestly empathetic look at humanity that’s as well-realized as anything the Wachowskis have accomplished yet.
Through the first 7 episodes of the 12-episode first season (the fact I couldn’t wait to publish this review until after I finished the season should tell you how much I’ve loved it so far), Sense8 feels like the ultimate extension of what the Wachowskis did in Cloud Atlas. It’s a multi-tiered, character-driven narrative that might be unwieldy but for the passion and thematic focus tying it all together. The series follows eight strangers spread all over the globe as they are gradually drawn together into a psychic hive mind after their latent abilities are awakened by Angela (Daryl Hannah). Perhaps part of the reason for the lukewarm notices the show received initially comes from the fact that critics were only shown the first 3 episodes, which admittedly see the Wachowskis and Straczynski embracing the longform structure to take very extended sojourns through the lives of their heroes. I can certainly see how some viewers might find the show to be meandering; we spend long stretches of time with each character, exploring their lives and superpower-free circumstances. Especially in the early episodes, some of these extended sequences can have absolutely no direct connection to the characters’ burgeoning psychic connection, and I can imagine people being put off by the lack of genre factors early on.
But once things get going, do they ever. Momentum builds from episode to episode, as the characters begin to discover not just their connections to each other but also what these abilities allow them to do… and what trouble they can get them into. This is also where all of the groundwork done with each character so far begins to pay off. The psychic experiences, both good and bad, are all the more impactful having gotten a clear picture of the lives that are being affected by them. It also helps that the creative team has lots of fun with the inherent possibilities of this premise, as the heroes’ ability to share each others’ bodies isn’t just used for action sequences or what-have-you, but it is also mined for comedy and emotion in equal measure. And there are some truly transcendent moments that result: one montage where all eight sensates are suddenly bound together by a certain song, and another where four of them are drawn into a trippy psychic orgy, are both visually and emotionally intense and represent the show at its best.
Ultimately I wonder too if the real problem people have with the series has more to do with its themes than with structure or tone or genre tropes. I remember criticisms against Cloud Atlas that it was all so wishy-washy, that the themes were so broad that they were cartoonish or phony or meaningless. Given that Sense8 is very much working on the same narrative and thematic ground I can imagine people being turned off by those themes here as well. But really, in a world that is so connected by technology and yet still filled with so much apathy for our fellow man, how could the themes of Sense8 be any more meaningful, or any more relevant, than they are right now? The characters we follow range across the entire spectrum of sexuality, race, gender and socioeconomic circumstance, and while I certainly wouldn’t say the show paints an all-encompassing look at humanity it does drive home how easily people can be bound together regardless of all those contextual elements of their lives.
I hypothesized earlier this year that after the creative success of Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis’ storytelling impulses were becoming too expansive and ambitious to fit into a comfortable two-hour action movie structure. I hoped that Sense8 would prove that they are as ambitious and inventive as ever, and that the extended storytelling format of a Netflix series would be a better fit for their creative interests. I’m very happy to say I was right about that, and that Sense8 is a wonderful return to form for the Wachowskis, wild and weird and imperfect and engaging as all hell. I hope the Wachowskis and their extended creative family get the chance to explore the world of Sense8 for many years to come, and I think the final result could truly be something beautiful.
Sense8 is available to watch on Netflix now. So, yknow, DO IT.