Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element concerns the efforts of two characters, played by Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, to find the fifth element and activate four powerful stones, which represent four other powerful elements. The “fifth element” in the title refers to “love,” which we discover in the film’s climactic finale when Bruce Willis’ character kisses Milla Jovovich’s character and confesses his affection for her.
I hated that ending.
Maybe it was because I was more cynical at the time. Maybe it was because I didn’t believe the relationship between Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, or maybe the movie simply didn’t give the characters enough time to build a believable relationship. For whatever reason, I found the gibberish ending cheesy enough to obliterate an otherwise perfectly decent pop sci-fi film.
By making so much of Netflix’s sci-fi series Sense8 about romantic love, the Wachowskis also ran the risk of sinking an otherwise great sci-fi idea with squishy nonsense. Ultimately, however, it works. It works because it’s believable. Because, in reality, Earth-shattering love is not subtle. It is not nuanced. It is big and sloppy and clumsy and sometimes cheesy, and the Wachowskis understand that. They understand profound love, I believe, because they also understand profound heartbreak, and the kind of over-the-top, romance-novel affection that burbles out of Sense8 could only be written by two people who know that devastation.
We don’t know a lot about the famously reclusive Wachowskis, and that’s by design. They are private people. They rarely grant interviews, and even much of their work is shrouded in secrecy until it’s released. We know that the Wachowskis were Dungeons and Dragons nerds as kids, that they watched a lot of film growing up, that they used to write for comics, they’re big into gaming, and they ran a house-painting and construction business when they were younger. Lana Wachowski has undergone gender reassignment surgery. Lana, in fact, once contemplated suicide in her youth because of her confusion about her gender and identity. Throughout much of the aughts — between The Matrix Trilogy and Speed Racer — Lana also attempted to keep her gender identity quiet. Meanwhile, Andy has been married to the same woman since 1991. Lana has been married twice.
This is what we know about their personal lives. Everything else, we have to discern from their body of work. We can see it all in Sense8, which is about a group of people around the world who are suddenly linked mentally. We can see Sense8‘s stylistic influences in the anime the Wachowskis watched and the video games they played. We can read their sci-fi influences into the novels they read and the movies they loved. We can cite comic books for their penchant for interweaving storylines.
But their ability to believably translate big, sloppy profound love into Sense8? That can only come from experience, and, if the 12 episodes of Sense8 are to be believed, the Wachowskis have experience in spades. We can read those experiences in the characters of Nomi Marks, a trans woman, and Lito Rodriguez, a closeted gay actor, and the passion they feel for their respective significant others. We can read into the relationship between Will Gorski, a cop with a savior complex, and Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ with a devastating past. We can even sense that in Kala Dandekar, a devout Hindu who feels conflicted between her affection for the man who loves her and the murdering criminal with whom she feels most attracted. The love those characters have for each other in Sense8 is so big as to almost feel overwhelming, and the passion comes through in lovemaking scenes that manage to capture the passion and intensity of the affection they feel for one another. It’s real, and honest, and, just as love is in life, it’s sometimes ugly.
There is no nuance or subtlety in the relationship drama of Sense8, and, for that, the Wachowskis have taken some critical heat, as they did with the sometimes over-the-top Cloud Atlas. But, in the case of both projects, the Wachowskis have exposed themselves, they have worn their hearts proudly on their sleeves and dared their audience to takes stabs. Sense8 feels intensely personal, and, in creating such a story, they have shown the kind of bravery that most “cool” filmmakers will deliberately avoid. Cheesy sentiments and big kisses will never be celebrated by hipsters, cool kids, and critics, but, like the uncool Cameron Crowe in his better days, the Wachowskis don’t give a damn. When it comes to romance, they go for the jugular, and they don’t care if the floor ends up messy with blood.
The result in Sense8 is that, once the characters are established, there’s at least one moment in every episode so profound and powerful that you can’t help but to feel moved by the love that the characters feel for one another. Sense8 is rich with brilliant ideas, and, though they are not always executed with perfect logic, the chemistry between the characters is undeniable. Once you fall in love with the characters, it’s impossible not to root from them, to feel and experience their ups and downs, their confusion and heartbreak, and, most of all, their love. It may not be cool, but the Wachowskis have finally managed to translate the fifth element onto the screen. In doing so, they have created, warts and all, one of the most romantic, life-affirming sci-fi series of all-time.