Sense8, the new Netflix show from the Wachowskis (the siblings who created The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski (the showrunner for Babylon 5), would like to join this tradition. The Wachowskis already oversaw the big-budget 2012 adaptation of Cloud Atlas, which earnestly tried to evoke the magic of Mitchell’s novel, made up of disparate narratives that spanned from the 1800s to a future century. (It flopped.) Sense8 is all set in the present, but the premise is just as hydra-like: Eight random people scattered all over the globe—a cop in Chicago, a bus driver in Nairobi, a businesswoman in Seoul, etc.—find their minds suddenly linked in mysterious ways, for mysterious reasons.
It’s a cool idea that pays off with some spine-tingling moments in the three episodes screened for critics. The characters peer into one another’s realities, feel one another’s feelings, and share one another’s skills only in fits and starts—most often in moments of high drama, either because of the way that the mind connection works in the show’s universe or because of the need for contrivance in any television story. Towards the end of one episode, a hijacking unfolds in Africa as a kickboxing match goes down in South Korea, resulting in a cross-continental martial-arts sequence. At another moment, love scenes transpire in India, Germany, and Mexico, resulting in some amusingly overlapping emotions for those involved.
But gosh-wow moments like those are rare, at least so far. Most of the screen time fleshes out the eight fairly banal principals’ lives. This affords the show the chance to dabble in an array of classic film situations: a Bollywood dance routine, a cop ride-along, a criminal’s safecracking. It also affords the program some refreshing diversity in regards to race and, more notably, sex and sexuality. Two gay couples figure in prominently, and the protagonist with perhaps the most screen time is a transgender woman. Still, many of these stories feel familiar. Does the sensitive Chicago cop have a hard-drinking dad and a partner skeptical of his compassion? Does the transgender activist—she prefers “hacktivist”—have a controlling, disapproving mother who insists on calling her by her male birth name? Of course and of course.
As has happened so many times in the Wachowskis’ career, you’re left wishing they’d been paid for their initial idea and that the execution had been left entirely to someone else. The wooden solemnity of Keanu Reaves et. al in The Matrix is proven again to be less of an aesthetic feature of that particular movie and more a result of how the filmmakers direct their actors. Outside of some neat crosscutting between story-lines, the Wachowskis’ visual sensibility hasn’t evolved much either. The title sequence is a good indication: It’s made up of not-particularly-well-framed postcard shots from around the world, presented at an iPhoto automated slideshow tempo, with fonts and music that might have seemed edgy on a mid-‘90s Prodigy album. Bloat is a problem, too. Into this mesh of stories, why add further clutter via flashbacks featuring different actors?