The Simple Reason the Wachowskis' 'Sense8' Doesn't Work

The Wachowskis paint on a big canvas, but the whole thing breaks down if you step closer.

A word about scope: Scope is awesome.

Sure, a finely observed study is a beautiful thing, but ambition wins every time. (The Sistine Chapel > The Conversation of Saul; The Great Wall of China > Green Monster; Empire State Building > Your House.) Andy and Lana Wachowski know this better than most filmmakers, which is why The Matrix and their post-Matrix projects are all devoted to explaining the very nature of humanity. They always traffic in leather, giant talking alligators in cloaks, and closely observed homosexual relationships, but, more than anything, they’re obsessed with the idea of everything and explaining the system behind it.

And that’s the problem: The bigger the scope, the clearer it is that there’s no system. As a filmmaker, you can have scope and you can have a system, but you can’t have both.

The Wachowskis don’t seem invested in religion, but they love a messianic narrative (Neo! Speed Racer! Jupiter!) and they’ve got a surfeit of faith. What do they have faith in exactly? Conspiracy. They’ve posited that humans are being used as batteries by evil robots, that futuristic racing is fixed, that we’re being farmed for a life-prolonging essence, and, in Sense8, that empathy/telepathy is dangerous to the status quo. These theories are all-encompassing and batshit nuts. Overlayed, they illustrate the sort of specific, nervous worldview that has animated a lot of classic films, including The Manchurian Candidate, Mulholland Dr., and Chinatown. But the Wachowskis don’t do the classical, character-centered approach.

They do the opposite.

Consider, for instance, the opening credits of Sense8. They show a set of street scenes from all over the world, San Francisco to Delhi. They show people doing diverse things. They are, in short, a sort of visual SparkNotes for thousands of years of civilization. The show is about every goddam thing and so the big idea — psychic connection through empathy threatens global powers — is mapped to humanity in its entirety. And that’s your scope problem. Humanity is so complicated that the size and multifariousness of the thing makes the very idea of a system laughable. This is why people make movies about the Passion of the Christ instead of filming the whole Bible.

To say that this strategy doesn’t work is almost reductive; the question here is about motivation.

It seems fairly clear at this point that whatever motivates the Wachowskis is singular to the Wachowskis. Like a lot of siblings, they have strangely specific shared tastes. Their movies, it seems, are intentionally, not accidentally, bizarre. Sense8 is as much a logistical success — they made the thing they set out to make — as it is an artistic failure. The same could be said for Jupiter Ascending, which is actually a Victorian period piece masquerading, for some reason, as an overmasticated space opera. None of this makes any sense outside of the Wachowski context.

Sense8 is a bad show, but a fun activity. The Wachowskis give their audience a big target and all the ammunition in the world to shoot holes in it. The series is supposed to be about everything, but it turns inward and becomes about itself.

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