Everyone knows and remembers the Wachowskis for the incredible and innovative The Matrix (1999) which many these days consider their first and only great film. Since than, their films have received less and less acclaim with some small hits (V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas) and other prominent failures (Speed Racer, Jupiter Ascending). Following the release and critical and commercial failure of Jupiter Ascending early this year, some believe the Wachowskis have lost their credibility in Hollywood and will not even have a chance to redeem themselves. Yet just this past week, they DID! Enter Sense8!!
As the Wachowskis' first television project, I must say they might want to switch fields because television is clearly a much better outlet for their expansive style of storytelling. Made and produced in collaboration with J. Michael Stracyznski (the creator behind Babylon 5), Sense8 represents a different kind of science fiction storytelling, exploring themes such as sexuality/gender, religion, identity, and social politics in a visually innovative and entertaining narrative. The shows explores eight strangers from around the globe in different cultures, who suddenly find themselves mentally and emotionally linked. They find themselves pursued by forces both good and bad and must use and rely on their connections to help each other.
[DISCLAIMER: Possible spoilers below if you haven't seen the show yet.]
At the heart of this show are it's eight main characters who find that they are now sensates, beings connected to one and other mentally. This allows them to communicate and appear to each other despite the fact they've never met each other before and are spread across the world apart from one and other. In fact, in the first season the characters never actually meet and when they are sharing scenes, they are appearing in each others minds rather than in person. The Wachowskis envisioned this as a way to show how humanity has become separated and fragmented into our own societies and cultures and yet we can still come together when we truly understand each other. The show benefits from a well diverse cast including many well known actors from around the world representing their respective countries such as Doona Bae of Korea and Max Reimelt of Germany.
The first season jumps between each characters story as they struggle in their own lives while at the same time learning to understand their new gifts. One of the defining features of this show is the way the story uses the characters' connections to each other to blend their stories together forming multiple narratives around one central story. Such as, in the first episode, Will, a Chicago cop, hears loud music and goes to the neighboring apartment to get them to turn it down only to find it empty; the scene than shifts to Riley in London as she DJ's in a club and is actually the source of the music.
Splitting the narrative allows the audience to see each character in their own unique culture and situation, from Kala facing an arranged marriage in India to Capheus trying to make a living amidst the gang violence of Nairobi. Perhaps the most endearing character, however, and one of the highlights of the series is Nomi, a transgender lesbian and a memorably skilled hacktivist, living in San Franscisco with her girlfriend Amanita. She is targeted very early on for her gifts and as a result, is one of the first to overcome the struggle of being a sensate. Amanita also shines as one of the best supporting characters, quickly accepting that Nomi is really seeing people and not crazy, and helping her as she goes on the run. This relationship alone is possibly the heart of the series.
Nomi (Lana Wachowski's first trans character but surprisingly not her idea but rather Stracyznski's) is an important symbol in the story and helps draw support for the trans community, following in the recent steps of Amazon's Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner. This is a great example of how each of Sense8's characters helps to shine a light on and spread an individual message about current societal issues, whether it's exploring the race relations between cops and African Americans through Will in Chicago or sexism in the workplace through Sun in South Korea.
The series' global reach is diverse and entertaining from gay pride in San Francisco and the KOKO in London to parades in Mumbai. The Wachowskis filmed most of the scenes in their respective locations which is even more impressive to think about when watching the series. To achieve the realism of connecting the stories, the film editors had to film and edit scenes together from the various different filming locations. For example, a conversation between Wolfgang and Kala would be filmed first in Berlin from Wolfgang's perspective before filming the same conversation in Mumbai and than cutting the scenes together to make it look as though everything is happening at the same time.
The series really does a great job of delving into these various cultures highlighting the stark differences between each and focusing on key aspects of each culture. Early on several of the characters are pleased to find themselves traveling to places they'd only dreamed of going. When she first meets Will, Riley expresses complete shock and awe to discover she is in America as she had always wanted to go; likewise, when Capheus encounters Riley in her home he is also thrilled to discover he is in England after which he proceeds to drink tea much to his own delight. The culture shocks that each character experiences are captured so well by the cast and the camera and help present a realistic and humanistic picture of what it would be like for people from all walks of life to find themselves in a new place around the world.
As is the case with any Wachowskis' production, the effects are unbelievable, or rather in this case very believable and convincing. Unlike their movies which are more about amazing special effects, Sense8's true success lies in it's choreography and editing. The challenge of inserting and shuffling these characters together is overcome in no small part by visual effects director Dan Glass who has collaborated frequently with the Wachowskis. Some of the most prominent and visually engaging scenes are those where the characters find themselves cornered b enemies; because they have access to each other's skills and talents, Sun is called on more than once for her mixed martial arts training.
(Below are two scenes where Nomi and Capheus get outside help from Sun)
As mentioned before, while filming was broken up by location, the editing in the series helps combine and blend many scenes together, sometimes really quickly, as when Capheus is startled by a chicken only for the scene to jump to Sun in her office in Seoul where a chicken lands on her desk before vanishing, and other times they are drawn out. It is used both for dramatic effect as well as humor; in one scene Kala is shown at a dinner banquet with her family before the story switches to Wolfgang who remarks to a girl in bed with him that he suddenly has a craving for Indian food. Together, the choreography and the visual editing form a television show that is constantly moving and changing; just like with The Matrix, the use of film helps bring to life the Wachowskis' vision in a way that books or pictures just couldn't otherwise.
While the premise seems confusing early on, after getting through the pilot, Sense8 both manages and excels in it's storytelling as the series goes on; this is something the Wachowski's have been increasingly criticized for in recent years, especially with this past spring's Jupiter Ascending. While some scenes may seem too much (more than one birthing scene) or unnecessary (a certain orgy), the show holds itself together and everything works and fits with each other. Part of the success here is the separate narratives of each character that join together slowly, and only after establishing themselves on their own. Thus, where the The Matrix revolved around one story, Sense8 involves eight stories each different enough to attract and interest some part of the audience. The main reason Sense8 succeeds is that while it answers certain questions about the characters' gifts and how it works, the first season only teases the overall conflict the sensates have with the villain Mr. Whispers whose organization wants them for unknown reasons.
By only including bits and pieces of the story, the audience is left with just enough questions to want more but not too many to remain unsatisfied. According to J Michael Straczynski, who actually co-wrote the show with the Wachowskis, this is on purpose. "We knew we wanted to do a prolonged story. I love five-year arcs, so we have a five-year arc worked out for this thing. We know what all of the seasons are going to be. So we know where the story's going to go, down the road." With that said, while Netflix hasn't renewed the show for a second season, if they do, we can expect much more of the shows rich and diverse storytelling and visual effects. Ultimately, Sense8 is unlike anything that has appeared on screen before; Straczynski and the Wachowskis have succeeded in bringing an original and thought provoking story to television that is both interesting and innovative. We are lucky to have this show and I recommend heading to Netflix and binge watching this show immediately, it is well worth the time.