It’s hard not to admire the Wachowski siblings. Directors Lana and Andy changed the way action movies are made with The Matrix trilogy, and their movies are defined by an unbridled sense of originality that’s severely lacking amongst today’s increasingly homogenised blockbusters.
Granted, the duo’s recent offerings, the confusingly intricate Cloud Atlas and this year’s outrageously hammy Jupiter Ascending, have flattered to deceive. The hope is that Sense8, the Wachowskis’ bold sci-fi series that was made available for streaming on Netflix last Friday, will improve their fortunes with a move to the greater expanses of television providing a more suitable home for the scope and complexity that has proved to be too big for the big screen.
At the very least, their faltering success hasn’t dampened their ambition. Sense8 is a truly global adventure that takes in eight cities across seven countries, requiring the help of several assistant directors to marshall a diverse and cumbersome cast. But while this mind-boggling sci-fi exemplifies the Wachowskis’ gift for sumptuous visuals and mythological world building, it’s first episode lacks the nuanced characters and focused storytelling to really do it justice.
The intriguing plot revolves around eight strangers who suddenly find themselves mentally and emotionally connected following a tragic death. The effect is immediately disorientating as each character inadvertently gate-crashes a fellow ‘sensates’ consciousness, but as the story develops they begin to work together under the guide of a mysterious and powerful man named Jonas in order to find the root of their powers and fend-off the murderous advances of a nefarious organisation.
As you might expect, the series boasts many eye-popping visuals and mind-bending action beats, with the Wachowskis immediately enticing the audience into this world with a viscerally disturbing opening sequence that finds a dying woman frantically arguing with two strangers who appear to exist only in her mind.
The most impressive visual trick, though, is the way characters are displaced by showing them in unusual contexts. We think admirable Chicago cop Will (Brian J Smith) is about to break up a neighbour’s raucous party, but instead we find the apartment to be empty as Will experiences the residual echo of a London rave attended by fellow sensate Riley (Tuppence Middleton). It’s a wonderfully discombobulating effect that constantly subverts our expectations, and it could well make for some superbly trippy action sequences in future episodes.
Yet, the same problems that hamper the Wachowskis’ movies are also present here as the spectacular imagery fails to mask the absence of well developed characters. The series is simply overstuffed with people and the plot inevitably gets bogged down in trying to introduce all eight sensates straight away and give each one their own enticing backstory.
In a way, the show bears a resemblance to Orphan Black, a gripping conspiracy thriller that also centres on linked individuals banding together for survival. But where the Canadian cult hit manages to relentlessly propel the action forward and build strong characters by drip-feeding their introductions, Sense8 suffers by going too big too soon, throwing all its characters at the screen simultaneously without giving them enough definition to stand out from the crowd of its own making.
The show clearly feels it has something to say about how people seem to be more connected and yet more divided than ever, as well as exploring themes of sexuality, identity and religion, but the script is too clunky and overwrought to do so in any meaningful or enlightened way, and the overall feeling after the first episode is one of a show that’s failing to live up to its potential.
Still, there’s enough promise in its closing moments, in which the core mystery finally progresses during a Tarantino-esque shootout at a drugs den, to suggest Sense8 could become the show the Wachowskis desperately want it to be, provided they can narrow its focus each episode and give its characters the space to fully develop.
Click here to watch a trailer for Sense8