Sense8 Versus The Matrix

Sense8 starts badly. It’s a show about eight people with a telepathic link that allows them to share each other’s skills, language, and pansexual orgies. Those eight people each live in a different country, but their link means they are frequently thrust together – sometimes literally, re: orgies – across time and space to share the same moments.

That sounds fun – and it gets fun – but common writing advice says you should start the story you’re telling as late as possible, so that there’s no unnecessary build-up. Sense8 begins its story an episode or three too early and seems reluctant to show who these characters are beyond their costumes. One character, Will, is a policeman, so there’s three scenes of him doing police things, in which the dialogue might as well have been replaced with “Policeman policeman policeman. Policeman? Policeman.” Meanwhile, “Business business business,” says business lady Sun Bak, in another three scenes set on the other side of the world.

When it finally gets going, the result is a romping, silly action adventure. There’s a joyful inevitability to it: you know early on, when Sun Bak is revealed to be a martial arts expert, that it is only a matter of time before impoverished, Van Damme-obsessed, Nairobian bus driver Capheus borrows that ability to beat up his problems. And sure enough.

This is all helped by the diverse characters. The show is broadly similar in tone and content to the first season of Heroes, but certain Heroes characters seemed always to be doomed to trudging personal plotlines while the major arcs prepared for their arrival. Not so here, where one of the character’s is Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican action movie star attempting to hide his homosexuality, and where the audience is wondering what’ll happen when those bright, camp storylines crash together with the grey tale of Berlin thief Wolfgang Bogdanow. Sense8 mixes genres and tones and settings in a freewheeling way that redeems plotting and dialogue that’s still, even in the better episodes, leaden.

Sense8 was created by three people: Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski and The Matrix’s Andy and Lana Wachowski.

It’s an interesting series in light of the latter two’s work. Sense8 holds a lot of superficial similarities with The Matrix: urban, seemingly ordinary people waking up to extraordinary abilities and discovering a hidden world of conspiracies and shadow organisations beneath the veil of the everyday.

But in many other ways they seem almost consciously opposite. Sense8’s implicit and explicit message is that we are all connected to one another. Or maybe more than that: in one scene in Episode 5, we see two characters who are unable to disconnect their link from one another. We are all connected whether we want to be or not.

Compare this to a similar scene in The Matrix: on a busy city street similar to that on which Sense8’s characters walk, Neo and Morpheus push their way through the bland crowds till Neo becomes distracted by a woman in a red dress. Upon glancing away and back again, the woman has transformed into Hugo Weaving, the film’s virus-like computer agent capable of possessing and in the process destroying any individual. The lesson: conformists who have not yet ‘woken up’ from The Matrix are tantamount to machines, and therefore subhuman, and so it’s OK when Neo and Trinity kill lots of innocent people a few scenes later.

The Matrix was one of my favourite films as a teenager. I was 14 years-old when it was released and I watched it over and over, enjoying it for the choreographed action and the satisfaction of Neo’s arc of empowerment. Watching it again as an adult, I struggle to enjoy it so freely. That self-realisation now sounds to me like self-absorption: everyone else is sleeping, only you and your friends are awake, so put on your leather coat and military boots and kill as many people as it takes to deify yourself.

Sense8 is the humanist response to The Matrix, then. Self-actualization is not found through “guns, lots of guns,” but through accepting, trusting, and depending upon other people.

Because of this, I find myself rooting for Sense8 – to the extent that I know I feel more positive about it now than when I was watching it earlier in the year, when the plotting and characters bothered me much more. The show still often displays a fourteen-year-old’s perspective on adulthood – it’s just better than the fourteen-year-old’s self-involved nihilism conveyed through The Matrix.

Perhaps Sense8’s philosophy is most cleanly expressed at its very start. Among a long title sequence in which the camera flits around the world, showing short clips people of all kinds revelling, we see a woman holding a sign. It reads, “KINDNESS IS SEXY.”

Back to the Saturday Supplement.

23 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    Not seen Sense8, nor am I likely to, but I remember thinking fairly early on that it bothered me how blithely The Matrix waved away slaughtering anyone else in the simulation. I don’t want to pretend I am or ever was above enjoying it regardless – it’s terrifically filmed action, some of Yuen Woo Ping’s best choreography, and even the sequels have merit – but I’m pretty sure the honeymoon came to an end pretty fast. I was probably older than 14, though, so maybe that’s it.

    I wouldn’t have minded so much if they’d actually attempted to wrestle with the necessity of killing anyone who hadn’t “woken up” – I can accept it as a necessary evil, but it might as well not even be a concern in that universe. Oh well. It is neat to see they’ve matured that much.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I enjoyed it, and I think I enjoyed the earlier parts more than the last couple of episodes. The ending almost felt rushed, perhaps because the pace of the rest of the show was so relaxed. The sharing of abilities part was great though, and I’d hope they explore that more in season 2.

  3. Crimsoneer says:

    Yeeeaeaaaah. Sense8 is awesome. The characters make the whole thing come to life by all being utterly wonderful. Apart from policeman policeman policeman, who just does action stuff.

    • malkav11 says:

      I don’t think that’s a fair description of Will, who also visits a shot kid in the hospital, watches fireworks with his dad on the lake, has vicarious sexytimes while working out, and of course has an honestly rather sweet romantic subplot. He is certainly also one of the major vectors of action in the series, given his location and training, but that’s not the only thing they do with him.

  4. Gandor says:

    I really love this series. Can’t wait for season two.

    Oh yeah, the soundtrack is amazing.

  5. Freud says:

    I think Sense8 has more in common with Cloud Atlas. Both have a sprawling narrative with interconnected characters and at it’s core a big humanist heart beating.

    I love Cloud Atlas but it seems it’s a movie people either love or hate. Sense8 seems to have the same quality. People either fall in love with it or don’t like it at all.

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Sense8 is a great show. I understand Graham’s feelings about the pacing in the early episodes – it probably does drag on a little too long without developing the protagonists as much as it could. Personally, however, I think that that’s because the ensemble cast extends far beyond just the 8 sensates. Every one of them has a web of pre-existing relationships that needed to be established, and this was more important in Sense8 than in other shows, since the main characters are geographically separated by vast distances. I get the feeling that the writers felt that without the slow start, it might have been a lot easier for viewers to get lost in all the interwoven plotlines and characters.

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    alison says:

    I really enjoyed this show. The overall story seemed a little thin (bla bla bla, hint of a conspiracy, to be continued), but i think the concept is quite clever. The central conceit is a perfect opportunity to address what cultural identity means in a globalized world, and Netflix is uniquely positioned to do it right because they are the closest thing we have to a global television channel. The nature of the characters’ powers even means the dialog can be meaningfully dubbed for each region.

    I hope they pull off something really ambitious. I love sci-fi, but it is frustrating that a genre that has limitless potential is normally depicted on television as only affecting a handful of locations inside the US that all look suspiciously like Vancouver. It’s terribly interesting to imagine how different cultures would react to global supernatural or science-fictional events. How would the world change? Granted, they didn’t exactly plumb the depths of the Human Development Index here, but the potential is good.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      I think that what you’re observing is symptomatic of the fact that until very recently, televised sci-fi had its feet planted firmly on the ground. I mean that more or less literally – most sci-fi series that came out in the last decade have been Earthbound, not shipbound, and the genre has suffered for it immensely. Think about it… Fringe, Revolution, Continuum, Extant, etc. etc. We essentially hadn’t had a decent shipbound show since BSG came out in 2004. New series like Killjoys and The Expanse seem to be bucking that trend, thankfully.

      None of this is to say that Earthbound sci-fi is necessarily bad, but it tends to be lower-budget, and therefore the seams are more evident. Noticing that every city on TV happens to look like Vancouver is just one example.

      • LaurieCheers says:

        Ironically, Sense8 was filmed in San Francisco and Chicago, but not in Vancouver. In fact, none of the shows you mentioned were filmed in Vancouver (except Continuum, of course, but that’s where it’s set.)

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        alison says:

        I sort of agree, but sort of not. I love spaceship sci-fi, and it’s definitely been a dry spell on that front. Didn’t really get into Killjoys at all, but i am totally loving Dark Matter, which has a wonderful creepy feel and a classic Alien/Star Trek Voyager/Stargate Universe vibe. I would love to see more of that. But creators could still do amazing things on Earth, if they worked a little outside the box.

        Continuum i’ll give a pass since it’s unashamedly Canadian. Aside from Lost Girl and Being Erica there have been all too few Canadian productions that go that route.

        But let’s look The 100. Falling Skies. Revolution. V. Minority Report. They’re all firmly rooted in the American experience. Which is cool, i mean, most shows are. I can forgive it in shows where the heroes are street-level (Almost Human, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Arrow), but when you’re talking about epic humanity-threatening discoveries it seems like a cop-out to ignore what would happen on the global scale. Some shows get away with it by pretending it’s all a conspiracy (Warehouse 13, Alphas, Sarah Connor Chronicles), but sometimes it would be nice to see the aliens land in another place, or consider how another culture may fare better in the apocalypse, or what if The Flash was Chinese, or Supernatural’s latest big bad didn’t manifest itself in America (again), or whatever.

        I fear Sense8 will go the conspiracy route, but since they are already filming all over the world i do hope ambition wins out and they take the opportunity to tackle the sort of near-future political intrigue that books like the Mars trilogy did so well. It’s a bit of a gap in television sci-fi, and i’d love to see it fleshed out more.

      • Scurra says:

        I think it’s just a “cycles” thing – you get about 20 years of a particular style and then most of the basic ideas have been exhausted so there’s a switch to a different style and so on. And after another 20 years those basic ideas have had a chance to refresh themselves as new writers decide they want to have a go. So I suspect that we’re about done with “earthbound” shows, and we’re ready to go back to spaceship SF again (especially now that Abrams has given a lead with Trek and Wars…)

  8. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    Well I thought it was worse than, ahem, Jupiter Ascending. Does it say enough?

  9. April March says:

    Wait… that’s the plot of Warren Ellis’ webcomig Freakangels. Except that in the comic it’s people from all around England and not the world. Also they have like crazy pshychic powers. Also when the comic begins they had caused the apocalypse, at least on England.

    The bottom line is that everyone should read Freakangels.

    • April March says:

      I was going to add that it was free to read on the internet but now realize I wrote ‘webcomig’ instead of webcomic. Thy presence remains missed, edit button.

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        Sihoiba says:

        FreakAngels is more John Wynham’s The Midwich Cookoos except if the children had survived to grow up rather than being killed off.

        It was very good, though I now need to go check it out because I don’t remember if I read it to the ending.

  10. bill says:

    Not seen this as I didn’t notice it for ages among all the hype for Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

    But I’ve been wanting to check it out since I saw it was by the Babylon 5 guy whose name I have no chance of spelling.

    Incidentally, I thought Daredevil and Jessica Jones were both great shows that both had pacing problems. But it’s a little hard to work out if this is due to the Netflix effect of dumping them all out at once to binge-watch.
    If they’d been spread out at a rate of one a week then it might not have been so noticeable.

    Daredevil starts great. Gets bogged down a little in the middle, then slightly rushes the end.

    Jessica Jones starts great for 1-2 episodes, but then rushes too quickly into the Killgrave plot and so also kinda runs out of steam. It could have done with interweaving a few non-killgrave cases into the early part of the season.

    Not netflix, but I’m half way through Agent Carter and it is awesome.

    • Cronstintein says:

      Hmm, you might be on to something, Bill. I had to take a break from both shows halfway through. I think because they’re both essentially 10+ hour movies rather than discrete episodes with self-contained plots.

      I really like binge-watching, so I like having the whole season out at once, but when it’s a dark story with minimal relief/resolution through the middle, I find it a bit draining.

      I did NOT have that issue with Sense8, btw. I burned through that in a weekend. I think the lighter vibe made it a bit easier for me. I really loved the bits where they would share their skills.

    • melnificent says:

      I think it’s old style TV story arcs that are the problem for Daredevil and moreso Jessica Jones. You have x episodes and a single overriding story arc for the season. It works on TV because it’s a single hour a week and a poor episode might not get noticed that much.

      Something more akin to The Flash season 1 where story arcs that would traditionally take a full season to end instead finish in as little as a quarter of the way through. It keeps the flow going, and even the rough episodes are packed and fun to watch.

      Even Galavant (no UK release) had sub plots and reveals by the second WEEK.

    • melnificent says:

      The Matrix is a warning of why mental health is an important issue and should be talked about.
      Neo is a man that barely leaves his room except for work. He doesn’t socialise except with people that want him to do things for them. A likely sign of depression and mental health problems
      This isolation is causing him to divorce from reality. At one point he is offered a choice of pills. These would be some sort of anti-psychotic, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work. From there it is a downhill slide as his mental state deteriorates.
      The three “agents” that appear everywhere are his mind hiding the truth from him…. he is on a murderous rampage because he refused to get help at the onset of his mental health difficulties.
      By the end reality is a distant memory and the trilogy is nothing more than his suicide note at the end of him killing hundreds of innocent people.

  11. malkav11 says:

    I wasn’t that excited by the premise of Sense8, and I’ve had mixed experiences with post-Matrix Wachowskis – generally I’ve at least mildly enjoyed their stuff, but it never quite reached the same heights and their names on a project isn’t necessarily an automatic draw for me. But then I found out JMS was writing it, and he’s never let me down yet. And sure enough, I loved it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous show, and I adore how warm and big-hearted and inclusive it is, and I loved every single one of the main characters and most of the side characters, too. It feels rare to have a science fiction show (one with a conspiracy plot, even!) that isn’t kind of cynical and suspicious of humanity at the core, and it’s certainly a huge tonal shift from the Matrix.

    I’m also not ashamed to admit that despite not being a huge fan of the song, I teared up at the “What’s Going On” singalong.