[This article contains SPOILERS for season 1 of Sense8.]
Way back in 1999, the Wachowskis rose to filmmaking prominence with a little film about personal freedom in the age of technology. That film was The Matrix, and while it convinced everyone that Keanu Reeves knew kung fu, it also set an incredibly high bar for the sibling filmmakers to clear with each subsequent venture into visual storytelling. And while certain films like Speed Racer have given us outrageously lush visuals, and Cloud Atlas proved the Wachowskis could convert a seemingly unfilmable novel into a mostly palatable movie, there has yet to be a work from Andy and Lana Wachowski that can really compete with the work that made them a household name.
So when Sense8, the siblings’ newest undertaking, hit Netflix, it came as no surprise that the series felt like an amalgamation of everything that had come before it. From the get-go, the sweeping story of eight strangers from across the globe called “sensates,” who share a unique bond and consciousness, looked like it fit into the emotional wheelhouse of Cloud Atlas. And while that is certainly true, there were also several characters, events, and ideas running through the 12-episode season to make even the most casual viewer sit up and say, “this feels familiar.”
Whether it was deliberate or not, the Wachowskis have imbued their surprisingly emotionally effective sci-fi series with enough nods to The Matrix that they are worth noting.
Here are five ways Sense8 is like The Matrix:
Jonas Maliki is Morpheus
Naveen Andrews (Lost) plays the mysterious Jonas Maliki, a fellow sensate who happens to be outside the “cluster” comprised by the series’ eight primary characters. He is first introduced communicating with Angelica (Daryl Hannah) before her death, and then later on through some intermittent communication with members of the cluster.
Like Morpheus, Jonas is labeled a terrorist by the authorities; he is wanted for crimes that remain unclear. He is also eager to lead a revolution and is quick to notice another’s ability when he sees it. As such, Jonas spends a lot of his time convincing other characters he has the information they need to not only save themselves, but also to make sense of everything that is going on. The knowledge and certainty he conveys puts him in a position of leadership, one where he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the good of those he is determined to protect (which places him in a situation not too dissimilar from when Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith). Although he doesn’t have a great deal of screen time, it’s clear that Jonas is nearly fanatical in his resolve to save his fellow sensates, and to end the war between them and men like Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann).
Early on, Jonas visits Will (Brian J. Smith) in a Chicago convenience store and winds up throttling the young police officer in a fight that’s (sure, it’s a stretch) a tiny nod to The Matrix’s dojo training sequence. Later, while Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is stuck in the hospital, about to be lobotomized, Jonas appears to her and offers her some much-needed guidance, telling her not to trust the situation she’s in, to trust her gut in thinking something’s wrong. When he leaves, Nomi’s shaken from her stupor by a knock at the door. While it lacks the heavy atmosphere and early mystery of the film, the whole encounter is very reminiscent of Neo’s initial run-ins with Morpheus.
Nomi and Will Make Up Neo
Jonas takes a shine to two characters for the most part: Nomi and Will. Together they form an amalgamation that is reminiscent of Neo. While they are wildly different, both characters shun convention, giving the proverbial middle finger to whatever or whoever is trying to control them.
In the premiere, ‘Limbic Resonance,’ Will refuses to conform to the standards set by his department and even his partner, by saving the life of a young gang member. He is also routinely in trouble with his captain, and eventually winds up being suspended from the job in a scene that is one part Neo being castigated by his boss, and another part every cop show with a maverick policeman who refuses to play by the rules.
While Will has aspects that make him Neo-like, Nomi is much more a direct counterpart to “The One.” She openly flouts everyone’s expectations of her, from her overbearing mother, to society at large. Not only is Nomi a hacker like Neo, she is because of her status as a transgender woman, frequently seen as someone who doesn’t fit in. In an early scene, Nomi’s girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman, Doctor Who and Torchwood) defends her from a group of women who disapprove of her presence at a pride event.
This combination of willful disobedience, self-concept, and self-understanding makes Nomi and Will like Neo in a surprising way.
A Telenovela References the Style of The Matrix
This is more of a direct reference to the style of The Matrix and maybe the siblings poking a little fun at themselves for the monster they created – or maybe at all the imitators that sprung up in the wake of the film’s release.
One of the series’ most entertaining characters is Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican action star played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre, who is idealized for his onscreen machismo and his (supposed) off-screen romantic exploits with beautiful women. While Lito’s story has to do with coming to terms with how his sexuality will affect his career, one scene in particular demonstrates what makes him the action start that he is. The courtyard action scene works in a meta sense, delivering a bloody, high-flying, bullet-riddled showdown, while also literally showing the strings being pulled to make it all seem real.
Wires guide Lito as he flies through the air, firing his prop guns in time with the squibs exploding on the bodies of the extras in the scene. The balletic precision of the sequence harks back to Neo and Trinity in the lobby of the building where Morpheus is being held. At one point, Lito knocks an assault rifle from an opponent’s hands, launching it into the air and leaving the adversary open to attack. After dispatching his enemy, Lito double fists a pair of rifles, doing away with his remaining opponents, before striking an iconic pose.
This the most overt reference to the Wachowskis and their style, but the tongue-in-cheek manner in which it’s done here gives the series a sense of dry wit that the siblings are often not given enough credit for infusing their films with.
Characters Guide One Another With Info Uploads
One of the coolest things about The Matrix was the idea that those inside the simulation could speak with those observing from the on the outside, operators who could give them a heads up when things were about to get hairy, or on occasion, deliver turn-by-turn navigation when they needed a quick exit.
Because a neural network (or shared consciousness) connects the characters of Sense8, communication is a lot like that of the operators in The Matrix – only this time they can make video calls (or Facetime as one person calls it), rather than just audio. Actually, they can do one better: They can physically participate in helping a fellow cluster member by either taking over their body for them, or giving them a guided tour of where they’re supposed to be going.
That’s an important concept for the series, and it’s one that is shared in The Matrix. There’s an underlying idea that unity – whether it’s a group of humans against sentient robots in and out of a virtual world, or between members of a sensate cluster – is imperative for survival. That idea is expressed in similar ways in both Sense8 and The Matrix; sometimes it’s directly spoken of, and other times it is indirectly translated through a series of actions, in which characters understand that even in the stickiest of situations, they are never truly alone.
Authority is the Real Enemy
Throughout the early part of The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are seen in conflict with figures that represent authority. Trinity engages in a deadly battle with police officers and Agents (who directly signify the oppressive system she and her cohort are trying to break free from). Before Neo ingests the red pill, he’s seen in conflict with his boss, who tells him, “You have a problem with authority…you believe that you are special, that somehow the rules don’t apply to you.” Later, after being apprehended by the Agents in his office, Neo refuses to answer Agent Smith’s questions, choosing to flip him the bird instead.
The rebelliousness of the characters is one of the reasons why they were so immediately intriguing and why audiences identified with them. No one wants to believe he or she is just another so-called sheep, going along with the herd. There’s something similar going on in Sense8, where every character is rebelling against some form of oppression or control in one way or another.
We’ve already discussed Nomi and Will’s rebellions, but there are plenty of others, like Wolfgang’s (Max Riemelt) fight against his father and uncle, Kala’s (Tina Desai) desire to go against religious and cultural tradition, Sun’s (Doona Bae) fight (literally) against gender stereotypes in and out of work and the family, and Capheus’ (Aml Ameen) battle against the oppressive gangs in his area (not to mention his fight to ensure Jean-Claude Van Damme’s awesomeness is recognized by everyone).
Then there’s the larger question of Mr. Whispers and the clandestine group he leads, which appears to have far-reaching authority over all sorts of things like governments and police departments. This collective oppressive group reads more like the machines in The Matrix than anything else.
It’s clear that the Wachowskis – whether they’re working with J. Michael Straczynski and Tom Tykwer or not – have themes and archetypes they like to revisit over and over again. While Sense8 may not feel as revolutionary as The Matrix did 16 years ago, the way these ideas have been reworked or flat-out revisited here is intriguing in terms of how the siblings’ sense of storytelling has progressed over the years.
Sense8 season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
Photos: Murray Close/Netflix