TV Review: Sense8
Synopsis: One gunshot, one death, one moment out of time that irrevocably links eight minds in disparate parts of the world, putting them in each other's lives, each other's secrets, and in terrible danger. Ordinary people suddenly reborn as "Sensates."
Review: I am a firm believer that a book needs to hold your attention within the first twenty to thirty pages or it is not worth reading. For a feature film, that timeframe equates to the first ten or fifteen minutes. But, for a television series, I am willing to give it the entirety of the first episode since series are setup by their pilot hour. By that rationale, Sense8 fails miserably to execute anything worth watching within the first sixty minutes. Netflix provided the first three episodes of the series for review and I can say that combined they make for an interesting introduction but it should not take three hours for a show to get going.
The core concept of Sense8 is very unique: eight individuals from very different parts of the world who forge a mental connection that will change their lives in powerful ways. The Wachowskis, credited here as creators and writers for the entire series alongside Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski, bring the same interconnected narrative that worked beautifully for them in CLOUD ATLAS but fail to capture that sprawling film's same rhythym. Because production was spread across Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Seoul, Reykjavík, Mexico City, Nairobi and Mumbai, The Wachowskis brought in V FOR VENDETTA's James McTeigue and CLOUD ATLAS' Tom Tykwer to help direct some of the international locations as well as their MATRIX RELOADED visual effects supervisor Dan Glass who makes his directorial debut on the series.
Visually, Sense8 uses some cool tricks to visualize the connection between the characters. Camera sweeps, tricks with mirrors, and some good old-fashioned editing give the illusion that characters spread across the globe are sharing the same physical location. Every city has some great establishing shots and the filmmakers make great use of these nine cities but the rest of the show feels like, well, a television show. I expected a project from The Wachowskis to wow me more but this is the polar opposite of JUPITER ASCENDING. Three hours in, Sense8 feels less like a science fiction series and more like a soap opera. Each of the eight primary characters is given a fair share of screen time but therein lies the big problem.
The series opens with a very MATRIX-like setup focused on Daryl Hannah, Lost's Naveen Andrews, and Terrence Mann's villainous Mr. Whisphers. The Wachowskis whip through a setup that has Hannah's character, a "sensate", transferring her powers to a new group of eight people. These eight begin having random visions of not just Hannah, but also each other. The setup feels like Neo first learning about The Matrix and then diving headfirst down the rabbit hole. But, in this series, we are given an intriguing setup that doesn't truly get revisited in any substantial manner for almost an entire hour. Over the course of the first three episodes, we spend a lot of time learning about the plotlines for each character: a Chicago cop, a Nairobi bus driver, an Icelandic DJ, a Korean businesswoman, a transexual woman in San Francisco, a closeted gay Mexican movie star, and more. But, there really isn't much substance to why we should care about these stories other than the hint of supernatural overtones.
The largely unknown cast feel like television actors and not much better. The international cast and setting do offer a nice twist on the traditional television series format, but the stories feel more preachy than need be. The Wachowskis attempt to explore territory not covered by mainstream science fiction like sexuality, gender bias, homophobia, AIDS, and more. It is admirable that they have found a vehicle to tell these stories but, unfortunately, they didn't make them very interesting. I continued watching all three episodes hoping for something to stand out and really make me want to watch the whole season once it's released, but I instead have a feeling I will tune in for the rest just to find out what the big payoff is going to be. Aside from a cameo from a cast member from THE MATRIX, the first hours of Sense8 are rather dull.
Some of you may disagree with my assessment based on the grand ambition behind the show, but a challenging format is not nearly enough to make a show work anymore. Visually, Sense8 feels like a big screen tale told on a small screen budget. Additionally, Sense8 feels like a SyFy reboot of CLOUD ATLAS and that is a major disappointment. Sense8 is being delivered for binge-watching when it debuts on June 5th but you may be better off taking this one slow or not at all.