(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.
I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascinations. Some of which work better than others.
The direction of the piece is first rate. The siblings handle the scenes in Chicago, San Francisco, London and Iceland, and team with Tom Twyker (Berlin, Nairobi), James McTiegue (Mexico City, Mumbai, Reykjavik) and Dan Glass (Seoul). Episode credits relate to whoever shot the most that ended up in that instalment. Cinematographers are John Toll (Wachowskis) , Frank Griebe (Twyker), Christian Almesberger (Twyker) and Danny Ruhlmann (McTiegue). More than once, as overtly invited by the title sequence, one is put in mind of the global montage documentaries of Godfrey Reggio, encouraged by outstanding score from Johnny Klimek and Tom Twyker. If all that was needed were production value, Sense8 would be Netflix’s reigning masterpiece bar none.
Unfortunately, the need include a pesky plot gets in the way, and the one the writing trio have formulated is especially rudimentary. The Sensates are everyday humans reborn when Daryl Hannah’s Angelica “births” their new awareness, an mutual awareness of each other’s lives, emotions, language and skill sets. If Lost invited complaints for not going anywhere much terribly slowly during its early seasons, then that’s doubly so for Sense8. The series’ main story is pretty much prologue for the first half of the run and, when a plotline does arrive, it’s at the hands of an Agent Smith stand-in who wants to put the kibosh on these octo-Neos.
We’ve seen these split character narratives enough in (increasingly not-so) recent years, from Lost to Heroes, such that something fairly intriguing needs to be worked into a new arrival to make it feel different. Apart from added sex and polish, Sense8doesn’t really have that. It’s actually a strictly formulaic affair, with a cherry of its more controversial elements on the top as a beacon to attract attention. Although, really, there’s much less sex here than there is stylishly staged ultra-violence. These characters may have been imbued with special empathy and connection to each other, but it all boils down to giving people a ruddy good kicking.
The Wachowskis have never been less than maestros in the action stakes, but their fall-back use of the same at any given moment here feels like a particular dichotomy, at variance with their central theme of our essential interconnectedness; one world one people, one sex, one mind.
Such heightened awareness pops up as regular as clockwork several times an episode, but never does anything really different (not in the sensat-onal group sex scene or the mass-birthing where everyone is taken back, right back, to the point of slight boredom). Yet these insights don’t instil in our characters a reluctance to kill, maim and generally beat the shit out of whomsoever particularly deserves it at any given moment. More, it is infectious. Those Sensates with a leaning towards the pugilistic appear to incite the less so, who apparently have no qualms about being used/mixed up in the aid of slaughter. This is recognised, of course, with lumpy dialogue about violence being a part of life, but it not only lashes against the Wachowskis’ overt theme to revel in dismemberment so, it also highlights that these characters are entirely less than elevated by this newfound set of insights.
Without such very satisfyingly shot action scenes, even given the generally very pretty scenery, Sense8would quickly become a complete snooze. There’s a feeling throughout that each individual tale is prelude, and we should be getting moving towards more interesting and illuminating fare. Unlike Lost, there isn’t enough that is tantalising to see us through the longueurs. We’re fully aware of the Sensates’ potential in the first episode, but they have to continually be piqued over the next eleven without any hurry to galvanise themselves as a result. Some (like Miguel Angel Silvestre’s movie-star-in-the-closet) seem wholly unaffected by their developing interior lives.
As such, it’s probably little surprise that the more titillating or controversial aspects are focussed on; no one is discussing how amazing the storyline of Sense8 is. Instead, discussion focuses on the strap-on in the first scene between Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman). There’s the much vaunted orgy scene, which is a little bit, but not quite as, silly as that Matrix rave, and there are also shots of giving birth (presumably included because they too are though to be taboo). There’s a definite glee at baiting the prudish or censorious, but it points to the series being too much about the window-dressing.
Some of the individual plotlines are agreeable enough, but none are remarkable in and of themselves. So it’s down to the actors to make them work. In the case of Tuppence Middleton as Icelandic DJ Riley Blue, there’s a whole lot of heavy lifting going on. It’s a good thing Middelton is such a great actress, as it’s her star power alone that keeps Riley’s story afloat. She’s involved in dodgy drug deals in London before fleeing back to Iceland for very pretty but rather tedious self-involved head trip into her tortured past; one that forms the basis for the final episode.
Another British actor, Aml Ameen has a more engrossing journey. His Capheus van Damme is a bus driver in Nairobi with an obsession with Jean Claude and a bountiful heart and conscience. Ameen lends van Damme a huge and enormously winning spirit, enlivening what is a fairly stand tale of criminal gangs (just in a different – Third World - setting to the norm).
Bae Donna, who made a big impression in Cloud Atlas, also makes a splash as Sun in the Korean segment, exuding stoical confidence and some amazing kick-ass fight moves as she takes the fall for the misdeeds of her brother.
These three are someway out in front performance-wise. Max Riemelt’s Wolfgang is a cocky safecracker and all-round hard guy with a good heart but a lust for affray; while there’s plenty of violence in this underworld subplot, Riemelt only really engages when put up against Tina Desai’s Kala. Kala’s engaged to a man she doesn’t love (Anupam Kher’s Sanyam, who might be the most ridiculously sympathetic and understanding jilted lover in recent memory; we keep expecting to be revealed as a no good rotter) but is having second thoughts, not least after seeing Wolfgang’s wang. Desai doesn’t have the chops of some of the other performers, but she does have abundant chemistry with Riemelt, which counts for a lot.
Who does that leave? Ah yes, I mentioned Silvestre. He’s very good as the self-centred Lito. Alfonso Herrara also provides solid support as boyfriend Hernando (I’m less convinced of Erindira Ibarra as Lito’s beard). Yet the plotline veers so close to overblown soap opera that it begins to resemble the accompanying parodic moviemaking scenes. As a consequence, it’s difficult to become overly involved. This isn’t helped when Lito is called upon to show his stock in-trade, but I’ll come to that.
Clayton's casting as Nomi has attracted attention in particular, a trans actress playing a trans lesbian character. Lana’s self-evidently using the character to comment on transgender issues, but Nomi’s hacktivist secondary characteristic is very sub-Neo. The main reason this plotline flounders, however, is that Clayton can’t hold her own against the other performers; even Freema, who was fairly wooden in Doctor Who, comes out looking fairly solid next to her.
Brian J Smith, is a better actor, but really rather lacking in the charisma stakes as officer Will Gorski. He’s one of several nursing past traumas (its like Lost!) that got him to where he is. Daryl Hannah is hardly in it, so the not-so elder statesman of the show is Lost’s Naveen Andrews as Obi-Sensate Jonas. Andrews is always a pleasure to watch. His guru-with-a-possibly-shady-side is easily the most intriguing role, and one he makes the most of whenever he crops up. Terrence Mann is less electrifying as Mr Whispers, mainly because he’s so unremarkably boo-hiss in his every action.
This isn’t one of those series where one singles out episodes. Rather, one points to memorable action sequences. Or odd indulgences. The siblings throw in a full-blown Bollywood dance number in the second episode, on a whim. Then there’s the infectious (and lazy, but infectious nonetheless) use of 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Goin On as a rousing anthem in the fourth episode. The siblings’ fascination with rave and drug culture is ever-present, occasionally a little embarrassingly so (Riley giving her father and his musical chums ecstasy before a performance).
And when they decide to wax philosophical over their themes (notably Freema’s mum, who handily teaches a class on evolution), the dialogue comes out as cloth-eared, indigestible stodge. They still haven’t discovered how to deliver ideas in an elegant fashion (except visually).
From the third episode, where there is a terrific tri-parallel fight when Sun and Will come to the aid of Capheus, the template for how these sequences will work is established. Sun is unleashed on a series of especially invigorating scenes including a hugely violent on in the penultimate episode (again, on Capheus’ behalf).
While Will, Sun and Wolfgang can all more than take care of themselves, the Wachowskis really work themselves into a cheese-laden corner when it comes to the super team fighting together, each bringing on their “special skills” at a given moment. I’m not sure if this idea could translate in a manner that is both elegant or germane. Certainly, when Lito pops up do some special acting improv or Kala gives it her some MacGyver chemistry abilities, the whole endeavour descends into unintentional Mystery Men levels of silliness. When will the Shoveler come on? Capheus’s upbeat disposition actually works rather well in this context, however, while Nomi is, of course, a hacktivist. As far as I can tell, Riley is entirely useless, apart from having a nice bleach job and going a bit gaga. Which you wouldn’t really call a skillset. This lot are clearly top heavy. The only ones who are useful are essentially destructive; they kill or break into things, or both.
Sense8 suggests what I had hitherto suspected of the Wachowskis (and long since knew about Straczynski (“Get the hell out of our galaxy!” indeed); don’t let them stop long enough to get emotionally meaningful because they have a tendency to embarrass themselves. Their themes are best expressed visually and, when they attempt to get down to verbalising or serious emoting, they are wont to make a bit of a hash of things.
Sense8 could have been told in a third of the time and wouldn’t have lost very much. If they want to do a Reggio type thing, I say go for it. Their visuals (and Twyker’s compositions) might work better in such a form than here. Which is, at any rate, little more than an approximation of narrative. Themes unfettered by plot seem to be what they were really aiming for here, after all, but they probably wouldn’t have got the Netflix budget for that.
Will this get a second season? I doubt that’s a sure thing, but I’d rather they came up with something a little more substantial and a little less derivative. I want to see them work as much as possible, and it’s a shame when they make a string of less than stellar performers since it can only limit that. Sensate8 illustrates that solid themes, globetrotting locations and sterling technical skills are nothing if you don’t have a really good story to tell.