Netflix Originals: Sense8, Guaranteed Spoiler-free Review

We review the highly ambitious sci-fi drama, Sense8. No spoilers. No nonsense.

To say Sense8 has a slow start would be an understatement. Many of the characters are introduced with little to go on besides what's on the surface. Its intriguing complexities appear to be at odds with stereotypical characters singing one-note personas some of which as loud as possible. Apparently, this was all part of the plan according to co-creator J. Michael Straczynski. The characters begin the story as deceptively basic, and following the plot course, unfold into multidimensional cogs that, like The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, transcend our concept of reality. Make no mistake, going into Sense8 many will be turned off, but the payoffs are huge. Sense8 reaches moments of sci-fi genius, connected with deeply touching characters, and a rewarding sense of humor.

One particular character, Nomi, played by real-life transgender woman, Jamie Clayton, was a hard pill to swallow. Not because of the hard LGBT slant, which I was actually delighted by its hilariously blunt symbols, let's call them, but because of the far too overt, say-everything-I'm-thinking script for Clayton's character. Subtleties are strong with the other characters, but not hers. I understand the angle the Wachowskis were going for, loud and clear, but it makes for a lopsided script and a character that is really difficult to like at first. Nomi is talking straight to the viewers, "Like me! I'm oppressed! My life sucks! I'm in love!" while giving the audience no room to warm up to her. I get it, guys. It sucks for transgenders. They live hard lives. They're proud of who they are. But wouldn't it have been more respectful to give her some depth outside of being a paper-thin poster for LGBT? Jamie Clayton isn't as bad as her character's writing makes her, evidenced by plenty of stronger moments from her performance and despite the early episodes, Nomi becomes an indispensable component to the plot.

Like Nomi, all the pieces are set off intentionally deceptive in their simplicity. For as complex of a concept as they begin introducing early on, in hindsight it was probably the smartest way to script the series: having a heavily intricate plot supported by characters that are easily grasped. Developing eight unique characters, filmed across eight different countries is a monumental task. Naturally, it can be frustratingly slow moving at first as we the viewers, like the characters themselves, don't have any idea how they are yet connected or know what's going to happen. It's a relief that the acting and direction, for the most part, is both adept and often impressive while we're lost as to where it could be heading.
"Transcendental psychic orgy? 
O.M.G. So sweet."

Straczynski admits that when writing the first few episodes, while they knew how the overall arc was to play out, wasn't sure how they were going to directly connect the pieces. As the series unfolds, they got significantly better at differentiating the cultures and locations as to make it easier to latch on to the rapidly changing beats of the story. It is no doubt a major challenge as a writer and can be difficult for viewers to keep up with such an ambitious narrative structure. While it takes its time to ease the viewers into it, maybe even teaching us how to follow along, later episodes begin to truly shine when two or more characters are sharing a conversation or action sequence with each other, connected physically, mentally, and emotionally from opposite sides of the planet. The amount of planning, and care that went into this series is no less than staggering. The film makers have to line up not only the actors performances, but the environments, the obstacles, and the motions of players and camera crew. The level of slick editing, acting, and direction expertise necessary to pull this off often had my head reeling in awe.

My only other disappointment with the series is a lack of Wachowski signature visual panache seen in Bound, The Matrix, and Speed Racer. The majority of Sense8 is shot hand-held, which gives it a lower budget indie quality. This isn't to say Sense8 is devoid of gorgeous shots and production value, but this approach was probably taken to benefit production efficiency. Almost completely missing are the Wachowski's curling Dutch angles, tracking shots, uncut action, and complex camera motions, all of which would have elevated the sense of a larger than life experience—all of which would have also been far more costly and time consuming to deliver across 12 episodes in eight different countries.

Carrying us across the multifaceted, multicultural web is an awesome score that pulses along with your heart and mind giving the viewer a current to swim with that's engaging, beautiful, eerie, and racing. Not only the score, but a perfect pop soundtrack ties the events and characters together in several musically-driven sequences featuring a huge span of genres. They seem to have done everything they can to make the unconventional narrative as easy to traverse as possible down to the music. No matter your reaction to Sense8, you can't say this wasn't produced with serious passion through and through.

Technical critiques aside, the majority of the cast are lovingly lead. Their stories develop into emotionally complex, sometimes heart wrenching, celebrations of sex, love, and friendship. It's easy to get deeply invested in one or several of the nuanced characters. Personally, I found Lito's story to be the most infectious. As a struggling Mexican film actor, starring in cheesy romantic action flicks, he is not only the biggest source of brilliant comic timing, but he arguably leads one of the most effective and relatable stories of love and loss in any series I've seen to date. Capheus, the Matatu bus driver, who has adorned his vehicle in Jean Claude Van Damme graffiti, fights with how far he'll need to go in the vicious streets of Nairobi to help his mother. Sun, played cool headed and emotionally torn by Doona Bae, is a Korean business exec who relieves her stresses working for a questionable company by competing in underground kickboxing. Riley, the gorgeous Icelandic DJ, now living in London with a healthy control of drug experimentation carries an underlying fear of eerie ties to her homeland. You won't realize how sophisticated and thorough each of the characters stories are until much later in the series or maybe not until reflecting upon it after you've finished.

"I double dare you! I dare you to make 
another movie like Jupiter ascending!"
If you're an attentive film buff, you'll pick up on tropes reflective of each country's film making techniques. The scenes in India play on the Bollywood influences, Hindu religion, and the colors of the culture. The Korean scenes feel like a dozen other spectacular works from the country like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Man from Nowhere. The European scenes feel like they were loosely inspired by scenes from Refn's Pusher, or Noe's Irreversible. The inspirations and diversity permeate through not only the cast, but the film making approach of various cultures. Outside of the U.S. films aren't as censored. Keep in mind, along with the cultural influences comes all the same creative freedoms, showcasing a lot of brutality, gratuitous sex, and other shocking visuals. Sense8 is not afraid of showing humanity in all its sweaty, ugly, bloody glory. Consider this a warning to those with weak stomachs or prude hang-ups.

Sense8 is brilliant in its immaculate details that come at you so quickly, yet coated in deceivingly straightforward characters and beautiful locations. If you let it sink in without judging too hastily, you'll be rewarded with a story little like anything you've seen before that you can't stop thinking about after it has run its course. The creators even go so far as to play with language in  such a smart way that it obviously went over a lot of critic's heads who were too stuffy to pay attention to how it played out. It's a series about so much. Maybe too much for most people. It proves that if you judge too quickly, you're going to miss out on its beauty or purpose before seeing it realized. Sense8 leaves you both satisfied and wanting more. It takes a special kind of love and care to pull that off and I hope that Netflix continues the story. As of right now, though the critics had mixed feelings, over 500,000 Netflix subscribers rated Sense8 with an average of 4.1 out of 5 stars. Thankfully, Straczynski says they have five seasons worth of ideas including a series finale already in mind. Though they don't have a written "universe bible," a collection of notes and scripting that establishes the rules and story plans for their fiction, they have it locked away in their heads as to keep the property protected and under their control. Hopefully it stays that way and Netflix allows a series this unique to live on to fulfill its undoubtedly fascinating resolutions.

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- J.G. Barnes