As “Cloud Atlas” (2012) steams toward its conclusion, it measures the world’s full weight. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a slave engineered to serve the consumerist wasteland of Neo Seoul, year 2144, completes her rebellion with a public message, an argument for individual liberty as collective obligation that will, in the tale’s imagined future, become a kind of scripture. “Our lives are not our own,” she says. “From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Adapted by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer from David Mitchell’s unadaptable novel, “Cloud Atlas” loses the delicate echoes of the source material in a sonic boom of Hollywood filmmaking. But while it’s uglier and rougher than Mitchell’s sextet of linked stories, the film is unaccountably powerful. Full of “tricksy gimmicks,” as publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) warns at the outset, “Cloud Atlas” smashes six worlds together, emerging as a flawed, ambitious epic—half transcendence, half trash.
Despite their failure to replicate the critical and commercial success of “The Matrix” (1999), the Wachowskis remain as committed as ever to elaborating the notions of connection, community, and social change that have defined their body of work. The siblings’ new original series, “Sense8” (Netflix), is only the most risky, sprawling, deliriously entertaining entry in what amounts, more or less, to a career-long investigation of the literal and figurative fabric of human endeavor. Perfect it’s not—in fact, certain stretches are barely coherent—but as with nearly all their productions, the delight comes less in the search for internal logic than in the expressiveness of its abandonment.
“Sense8,” co-created and co-written with J. Michael Straczynski, follows eight disparate individuals, from an Icelandic DJ living in London (Tuppence Middleton) to a Nairobi bus driver (Aml Ameen), as they discover and explore the telepathic connection that unites them in a globe-spanning web. Augured by a desperate woman (Darryl Hannah) in the admittedly lousy premiere episode—a muddled, strained hour that faces the unenviable task of introducing an octet of far-flung characters in addition to the series’ premise—these bonds strengthen as each tests the boundaries of his or her new power while simultaneously dealing with the drama of everyday life.
The DJ, Riley, befriends Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago police officer, by sharing a transatlantic pint; Sun (Bae), a South Korean businesswoman, helps Capheus, the bus driver, out of a tight spot with a band of Kibera criminals; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a man with family ties to the Berlin underworld, develops an attraction to the prim, intelligent Kala (Tina Desai), unhappily engaged in Mumbai.
To press too hard on the mechanics of the connection, much less the mythology behind it—involving reams of half-whispered, quasi-philosophical claptrap and Naveen Andrews (“Lost”) as a mysterious man named Jonas—is to watch the edifice crumble, and for those terribly concerned with adherence to a consistent set of rules, “Sense8” will be an irredeemable outlaw. The Sensates, as they’re called, catch visual and aural snippets from one another’s experiences, or converse across thousands of miles, or even inhabit and act through each other’s bodies, but there’s no particular rhyme or reason to these distinctions besides narrative convenience. To the Wachowskis, the fusion of eight minds seems almost incidental, a heightened, evocative metaphor for the quotidian complications of our fluid identities.
“Sense8,” despite its scope, is the Wachowskis’ most intimate, autobiographical work—particularly for Lana, who came out to the general public as a trans woman shortly before the release of “Cloud Atlas.” If the series can be said to possess a singular thematic thrust, it’s an abiding interest in a kind of slippage between self and other, or indeed between multiple selves, that might be called “queer,” and indeed “Sense8” comes closest to a statement of purpose as one Sensate, a trans woman named Nomi (Jamie Clayton), prepares to celebrate San Francisco Pride. Early in the second episode, as we briefly glimpse each of her fellows, Nomi elucidates a vision of a just society that embraces difference within a broader political program of collective action: “I’m not just a me. I’m also a we.”
Several critics, most prominently The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, have expressed mixed feelings about the series’ ideological convictions, appreciative of its earnest, progressive complexion yet unconvinced of such sentiments’ dramatic usefulness. “Sense8” does veer periodically into blinkered self-congratulation, as in the Sensates’ harmonious, deeply corny rendition of 4 Non Blondes‘ “What’s Up?,” with its reference to the “brotherhood of man.” At a time when “identity politics” has been closely scrutinized—particularly on college campuses—the Wachowskis’ multi-hued, polysexual fiction suddenly seems, if not outdated, less than radical.
Nonetheless, “Sense8” brings a liberated, almost gleeful quality to the direction that transforms potential flaws into surprising assets. After Nomi’s impassioned video message, for instance, the second episode pursues the implications of her speech through joy and grief, comedy and drama. While she faces her cruel, intolerant mother, who insists on calling her “Michael,” we learn by way of a little screwball that Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), an actor in Mexico City, is gay, and pause for a Bollywood-style dance sequence involving Kala and her intended. (Another episode, near midseason, features the hottest telepathic queer orgy ever filmed.) “Sense8” may be sincere, even saccharine, in its politics, but in its style, from corn and camp to action and adventure, the series exhibits the freewheeling verve of the Wachowskis, unbound.
Indeed, if “Cloud Atlas” relied rather too heavily on actors cast in multiple roles, not to mention the score, to knit together its narrative threads, “Sense8” witnesses the (incomplete) evolution of a diegetic vernacular that at least begins to suggest the particulars of the Sensates’ connections. Visual parallels (red folders, bandaged hands) become bodies transposed from one situation to another, as Will finds himself in the climactic set piece of Lito’s current project or Wolfgang feels the restraints holding Nomi in the hospital; the sounds of sirens, combination safes, and pounding electronic music bleed from one location to another. I finally set aside any qualms during the third episode’s final sequence, stitching Will, at the firing range, and Sun, in a boxing ring, into Capheus’ battle with a local gang—a marvel of energetic editing that finds suspense not only in the three stories themselves, but also in how “Sense8” will run them together.
As science fiction of any real ambition increasingly inhabits the arthouse, and happily so, the Wachowskis count among the last genuine visionaries of the genre’s more populist vein, and “Sense8,” in both its merits and its flaws, is the culmination of a period of profound personal change and professional experimentation. We need mainstream artists of the Wachowskis’ caliber more than we need craftsmen of forgettable studio blockbusters, even, I’d argue, the Wachowskis of the much-derided “Jupiter Ascending.” The siblings and their collaborators—buoyed, of course, by Netflix’s deep pockets and wide-ranging creative sensibilities—now paint on a broad enough canvas to risk exposing their weaknesses, and in doing so reaffirm their strengths.
After all, “Cloud Atlas,” close kin to “Sense8,” is also a story of lives lived beyond our own, in which art functions as the primary connective tissue. Its tale traces political convictions and personal sensations alike through “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Cloud Atlas Sextet, the Luisa Rey mysteries, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” Sonmi’s manifesto, the distant future’s sacred texts. Whether or not the Wachowskis drew inspiration from Mitchell’s bold, ambitious vision, “Sense8” turns out to be a sonic boom all their own, smashing worlds together and producing more transcendence than trash.
“Sense8” is now streaming on Netflix.