In the now classic 1999 movie “The Matrix,” machines enslave humans for use as battery-like sources of energy. On the new Netflix series “Sense8,” it’s almost as if Tinder has taken control of the planet.
The creators of the “Matrix” movies, Andy and Lana Wachowski, have teamed up with J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”) to make a transcendental action-adventure drama with romantic undertones.
In “Sense8,” an unknown force defies time and space to connect eight strangers who seem to have only two things in common: youth and good looks. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that an extraterrestrial millennial is using a dating app, moving from continent to continent, swiping right on eight gorgeous people in alluringly exotic settings.
Friday, Netflix began streaming the show’s 12 episodes, which snake through Mumbai, Seoul, Chicago, Mexico City, San Francisco, Berlin, Nairobi and London. Beautifully shot and sublimely silly, “Sense8” is slower than “The Matrix” and not nearly as thrilling.
It shares some of the style and sensibility of “Cloud Atlas,” the 2012 time-spanning film that the Wachowskis directed with Tom Tykwer.
In terms of television, it’s probably closest to ABC’s series “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes,” but more cosmopolitan, with snazzier camera work and a lead character who has particular resonance at the moment.
Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender blogger and reformed hacker (she prefers “hacktivist”) in San Francisco. Like the seven other “sensates,” Nomi has a terrifying vision that causes her to start seeing, feeling and talking to others in distant places. “Sense8” moves from one character to the next in quick bursts, but in the first few episodes, Nomi’s affair with Amanita (Freema Agyeman), her investment in San Francisco’s Pride Celebration and her estrangement from her family are more deeply explored than the other story lines.
That makes sense given that Lana Wachowski is transgender (she was known as Larry when “The Matrix” was made). Clayton is also transgender and, alongside Laverne Cox from “Orange Is the New Black,” among the first such actresses to play a prominent role on a major television series.
Nomi’s voyage of self-discovery and liberation is eloquently told and is certainly timely, given the growing interest in gender identity, now at a high boil with Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover.
But Nomi’s adventures seem to move at a slower tempo and with more intensity than other back stories, which are revealed in more elliptical narrative flashes. Eight main characters in eight cities is a lot to introduce, and the exposition is more effective when it moves fast.
The characters’ interconnectivity in some cases is so fluid that one scene bleeds into the next. But the filmmakers don’t use “bullet time,” those slow-motion action sequences made famous by “The Matrix.”
Instead they artfully blur the edges of reality. A live chicken that Capheus (Aml Ameen) receives as payment for bus fare in Nairobi flutters onto the office desk of Sun (Doona Bae), a businesswoman in Seoul.
Guests extol the food at a fancy engagement party in Mumbai, and in Berlin, Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), in a postcoital daze with a girlfriend, suddenly has a craving for Indian food.
Their first shared vision opens the show. In what looks like a burned-out church, a woman named Angel is dying, giving birth or a little of both, while two sinister males, who come and go like apparitions, coach her like dueling doulas.
Daryl Hannah plays Angel, and that’s probably a mistake, because here the actress has the same startled expression and tangle of damp hair she sported in “Splash.” Her pain could be the prelude to sprouting a mermaid’s tail.
They don’t know it at first, but the eight men and women who keep seeing Angel are being hunted. They also are being watched over by a psychic guardian-stalker named Jonas (Naveen Andrews of “Lost”), who seems to be on their side in an otherworldly battle between good and evil, with perhaps a dash of government or military-industrial conspiracy in the mix.
Each story line taps into a different cultural cliche. There is Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a hammy telenovela star in Mexico City who is gay and closeted; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a goth-dressed and disaffected Icelandic DJ in London; Will (Brian J. Smith), an idealistic Chicago cop; and Kala (Tina Desai), an Indian uneasy about marrying the rich fiance that her parents adore (her story includes a Bollywood dance scene).
Their personalities match their exotic backdrops, perhaps too neatly, but the fun of “Sense8” is the unsettling juxtaposition of different settings and characters.
It takes a while for their stories to blend. One of the more exciting moments comes only in the third episode, when a character who has a secret expertise in martial arts is suddenly transported to a brawl in another part of the world to assist someone who has taken on a gang of thugs.
The “Matrix” was a furnace blast of stylized cyber-violence and adrenaline. As its title suggests, “Sense8” is a slower dip into dreamy conspiracies and chimerical fellowship.