Sense8 review: the creators of The Matrix find a new home on TV

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Nobody has ever accused the Wachowskis of being short on ideas. The filmmaking team behind movies like Cloud Atlas and the Matrix trilogy have built a career on creating worlds you’ve never seen and spelunking deep into the depths of a million navel-gazing questions about the nature of existence and our place in the universe. What they’ve struggled with — particularly over the past 10 years — have been characters worth caring about.

After Bound (a criminally underrated bit of character-heavy noir) and the original The Matrix (which owed its success to bringing laser-sharp archetypes to life as much it did to stunning visual effects), Andy and Lana Wachowski have largely been out in the wilderness, making movies about stylistic conceits and abstract intellectual reaches without ever attaining that same level of cultural relevancy they did so many years ago. In my review earlier this year of Jupiter Ascending, I wondered if the medium was the problem; if they were simply trying to cram too much into the constraints of your average movie, and if switching to a longer, serialized form of storytelling could be the answer.

Now that Netflix is getting ready to release Sense8, the 12-episode TV series the Wachowskis created with writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), it’s time to answer that question.

Sense8 revolves around a group of eight individuals across the world — or "sensates" — all of whom find themselves able to tap into and experience the senses of each other. A Chicago cop (Brian J. Smith) is disturbed by dance music next door, when in reality it’s the set that a London DJ named Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is spinning. A woman in Mumbai (Tina Desai) grabs an umbrella on a sunny day, while in Berlin a young criminal (Max Riemelt) attends a rain-soaked funeral. It provides for some fun connective tissue as the first episode unfolds, holding together a rather disparate set of stories — and of course it wouldn’t be a television show about people with mysterious powers if there wasn’t some sort of shadowy conspiracy in play. In this case it’s Lost’s Naveen Andrews, playing a enigmatic figure trying to bring the group of eight together for reasons unknown (or at least, reasons that remained unknown during the first three episodes that Netflix previewed).

The set-up sounds like Heroes or any other number of shows from the 2000s, but the Wachowskis — who direct the entire season — differentiate their show by taking different genre approaches with each character’s story. Wolfgang’s tale takes on the vibe of a gritty crime thriller, while the story of a closeted Mexican movie star and the actress who’s obsessed with him plays like a tongue-in-cheek comedy of errors. The show shot in eight different countries, and the Wachowskis are stretching their legs here, clearly having fun with the expanded canvas they’re able to work with, while never sacrificing their signature attention to detail or style. Whether it’s ponderous slow-motion or a dancehall rave, there’s no question: they’re going Full Wachowski.

Sense8 promotional image (NETFLIX)

At times, that visual styling does cause Sense8 to feel a bit like a throwback. Everything from the concept to the show’s opening credits font and music cue — a thinly veiled riff on Radiohead’s "Pyramid Song" — feels planted firmly in the early aughts. It’s distracting at first, especially coming from filmmakers that have been bent on pushing things forward at all costs, and it doesn’t help that Sense8 takes its time in distinguishing itself from existing shows. But as it picks up steam and begins delving into the familiar Wachowski themes — that we are all interconnected, across lines of race, sexuality, gender, and class — it begins to establish its own sense of identity. By the end of the third episode, when the show finally gets the chance to add the Wachowski’s penchant for action choreography to the mix, the combination had me fully on board.

But all of those flourishes and concepts pale in comparison to the patient stories Sense8 wants to tell. While there are crimes, unjust incarcerations, and chases, over the first three episodes, the bombastic plot twists are relatively rare and there’s no fantastic sci-fi to be seen. Instead, the show takes its time, building its world moment by methodical moment. It’s not as heavy on plot as many binge-hungry viewers are going to want, but the approach lends a sense of intimacy to the show that I've never seen the Wachowskis pull off before. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the story of Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a transgender writer living in San Francisco. Sense8 is one of the most diverse shows in recent memory, and while that deserves praise in and of itself, it also feels like the show would argue that’s not the point. Nomi is simply an incredibly relatable character brought to life by Clayton’s vulnerable, standout performance. She is the beating heart of Sense8, and Clayton allows the Wachowskis to move beyond intellectual discussion, and imbue the show’s ideas with an actual soul.

Sense8 promotional image (NETFLIX)

From the globe-spanning production to the bold choices in characters, Sense8 feels like the exact kind of show Netflix needs to make to stay vital — one that could be matched only by the likes of HBO. And for the Wachowskis themselves, it’s a new beginning: a chance to adapt to a new medium and start a fresh chapter in their careers when the odds are they may never again get the free rein in big-budget filmmaking they once enjoyed. Of course, plenty of shows have had promising starts only to collapse as they stretch on; hell, the Wachowskis have already done it once themselves with the Matrix trilogy. But consider this: the last time I saw a Wachowski project, I spent two hours inside a theater and wished I’d never met speed-skating Channing Tatum. Right now I’m nearly three hours into Sense8 — and I’m looking forward to hanging out with these characters for the next nine.

Sense8 debuts on Netflix on June 5th.

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