Sense8 Is a Big, Beautiful Sea of Humanity

The new sci-fi drama from the creators of The Matrix offers a messy vision of a (super)human condition
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The new sci-fi drama from the creators of The Matrix offers a messy vision of a (super)human condition
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Sense8, Netflix’s latest offering in a slew of new summer sci-fi dramas, only premiered last week, but journalist and author Richard C. Morais wrote what could be considered a perfect review of the series in 2010. “All this sea of humanity reassured me that as alien as I felt,” penned Morais in The Hundred-Foot Journey, describing the crowded streets of Camden. “There were always others in the world far odder than I.” 

The series, written by Andrew and Lana Wachowski of Matrix fame and Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski, follows the lives of eight individuals somehow, some way, connected to one another through a strange telepathic and sensory connection. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is: The trope of complete strangers’ lives intersecting in mysterious ways has been played out on television (Lost) and on the silver screen (Crash, Magnolia, the Wachowski’s own Cloud Atlas adaptation) for decades. Intimate stories weave together to form a tapestry of life, a facsimile of the human condition.  

But Sense8 is a departure from previous adventures in hyperlink cinema simply in terms of its diverse ensemble—a pharmacist in Mumbai, a bus driver in Nairobi, a lesbian trans woman hacktivist in San Francisco, a safe-cracker in Berlin, among others, are all interconnected. Despite its science fiction premise, Sense8 evokes the same cosmopolitan sensibility written into Morais’ more provincial Hundred-Foot Journey, which garnered praise and accolades for its depiction of multiculturalism and assimilation. The connection between the eight “sensates” stretches across physical and cultural boundaries, even though, Like Hundred-Foot Journey and Sense8 itself, they are nothing alike and everything alike.

The production and direction of the series complements the series’ premise. The eight sensates flit in and out of each others lives while never physically meeting on another; Straczynski said in a February interview that this won’t occur “due to the showrunners' wish to explore each character's respective culture," and this remains true until the season finale. On top of the bleeding edges between plotlines, the viewer's main focus continually kaleidoscopes from character to character, a manic whirlwind of human problems and personal demons mysteriously orbiting one another. 

The unique approach of Sense8 is ultimately its biggest flaw. While the Wachowskis offer a truly compelling premise in the opening episodes, the series struggles under the weight of its overlapping stories. Forget episode to episode: Individual installments border on convoluted rather than complex, mired by intricacy for its own sake. Glance at your phone for a second or get up to take a piss, and chances are you’ll miss something important. Yes, Netflix has a pause button, the service should know better: second-screen watching is the new normal.

Part of the challenge may simply be the medium. With movies like Magnolia and Cloud Atlas, directors at least have constraints that help stabilize their characters’ paths into a single, sensible orbit. With Sense8, the main characters’ journeys are more like slow slogs towards some distant, mysterious goal. While the Wachowskis expertly bind our heroes in interlocking, high-intensity sequences— the third episode yields a battle that stretches across three characters on different continents—the lulls between these climaxes can seem deathly boring.

Sense8 offers a more ambitious approach to well-worn territory, but at the cost of its fundamental building blocks: The sensates themselves. It’s difficult for us to grow attached to our protagonists, and often we forget they exist until they suddenly show up on our screen after an episode-long absence. The Wachowskis and Straczynski want to truly capture the human condition by weaving eight complicated in that “sea of humanity,” but despite their best efforts, it’s those individual stories themselves that struggle against the waves.

Photos by Murray Close/Netflix