The Wachowskis and Muse are back on form, Ubisoft remain a company of two very different halves.
The Wachowskis’ madness has infected television. Their trademark lunacy, for better and for worse, remains very much intact with Netflix’s Sense8, the siblings’ first foray into TV. I had been looking forward to this immensely since it was announced several years ago, being both a fan of most of the Netflix original programming so far and the majority of the Wachowskis’ work. I will admit that this anticipation was somewhat dampened by Jupiter Ascending, an unmitigated disaster on numerous levels and one of the worst films I’ve seen in recent years. Thankfully Sense8 more closely resembles Cloud Atlas, their excellent adaptation of the book of the same name.
Eight individuals all living in different parts of the world become telepathically linked, sharing each other’s emotions, skills, and senses. The premise gives way to a range of surreal scenarios and grandiose philosophising, vintage Wachowski subject matter through and through. Despite the enormous complexity of it all, the show works. The main issue it does have stems from occasionally outrageously cheesy dialogue and an over-reliance on exposition (although given the nebulous nature of the core plot, I can forgive an eagerness to directly address such things.) Both of these become less problematic as the show finds its feet and the season progresses.
I think a lot of people will be disappointed that Sense8, in spite of its crazy plot device, is actually a fairly grounded drama. Much of the season is spent simply living in these characters’ normal day-to-day lives, understanding their woes and getting to really know them. As such, the pace is a slow one. For me though, that’s a great strength. Once the stakes do get raised, there’s a solidly built connection between the audience and the ensemble, one that reinforces a desire to see them succeed and overcome. This is hardly a unique storytelling method but it’s pushed a little further here than you’d usually see in most serialized dramas.
Given that there’s eight main characters, it’s inevitable that some work better than others but on the whole it’s a compelling group. Each of these characters is in a different location around the world, ranging from London, to Nairobi, to Seoul. The single most striking aspect of Sense8 is that the show was shot entirely on location, in eight different countries. I can’t even begin to imagine the logistical nightmare that must have been or how much it must have cost Netflix but fucking hell, was worth it every penny. The juxtaposition between each distinct locale is simply staggering, especially when a character can be in multiple spots around the globe simultaneously. It’s not just on a visual level either, the sharp contrasts between cultural and personal differences are similarly striking and exacerbated as result of this approach. It’s something completely unlike anything else on TV in this respect.
The show must also be credited for bringing together a very diverse cast; white, black, Asian, heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, all find representation here in mostly engaging ways. In the back run of episodes, they begin to interact with each other in increasingly complex situations, leading to several memorable actions sequences with rapid transference of conscious as each of their strengths are required. It’s as insane (in the best possible way) to watch as it sounds.
Sense8 is a rare all encompassing show and while it doesn’t always hit, when it does it hits in a way that feels almost wholly unique in the landscape of television drama. It’s an endearing celebration of practically every positive avenue of humanity. I sincerely hope Netflix give it the second season it deserves.
Muse’s seventh studio sees them firmly back on form. I was bitterly disappointed with The 2nd Law and while I’ve come to enjoy parts of it in the years since, it remains a blemish on an otherwise stellar discography. (Yes, The Resistance is great, even if it did give us Guiding Light, very possibly the worst song they’ve ever made.) I had been anticipating Drones with a great degree of excitement ever since Bellamy said “this is what the next album sounds like” after playing Agitation (I believe) at a gig a year or two back. The implication was that they’d return to a simpler, heavier, and more 3-piece band centric sound.
That mostly turned out to be true and the result is their best effort since 2006’s Black Holes & Revelations. It’s not an entirely riff based affair however and had they leaned a little more in this direction an even greater body of songs would likely resulted. Still, the version of Drones they delivered represents an excellent attempt to please all sections of their fanbase with a fair mixture of more radio-friendly pop rock anthems and grimy guitar shredding. The latter style results in one of the best trio of songs in their career in the form of Reapers, The Handler, and JFK/Defector. Reapers in particular showcases an excellent capturing of one of the elements that makes Muse such a live force to be reckoned with, a monstrous outro closing off the six minute thriller, the style of which is usually reserved exclusively for live performances. It’s spectacular and something that would be more than welcomed in future studio albums.
My only real disappointment comes with The Globalist, a ten minute epic with three distinct sections. There’s a wonderful Ennio Morricone inspired build up, breaking out into one of the band’s all time best heavy riffs. The climax however, as sweet as it is, comes far too soon, and while the piano based third act is a nice closer, it’s hard not to feel a little short changed when such an excellent moment of straight up head banging rock is so cruelly cut short. It’s a very good song if you can appreciate it for what it is but being reminder of what it could have been hurts.
I’m confident in saying there isn’t a single bad track on the album, something I can’t say of either of their previous two records. Not only that, but there’s some legitimately wonderful hard rock to be had here. I’ve always been a sucker for concept albums and while the narrative here is quite simple, I appreciate how closely linked many of the songs are, both thematically and literally (several of them flow seamlessly into each other). Bellamy’s lyrics are as hit and miss as they’ve always been but that’s long since ceased being a point of contention for me. Muse are back with bang and I couldn’t be happier about it. Dublin date soon guys, please?
The Steam summer sale insanity continues. Grow Home was one of my purchases. Between The Witcher 3 and Telltale’s Game of Thrones, I was in the mood for something shorter and a little more light hearted. Grow Home fit the bill nicely. Stealth released by Ubisoft Reflections earlier this year, it arrived with no fanfare. Turns out it didn’t need it, becoming a small scale hit almost immediately.
It’s an exceptionally simple, almost prototype package but a refined one at that, exuding charm and beauty using little. A very physical platformer, with an emphasis on clambering ever higher, Grow Home sees players take control of B.U.D., a robot sent down from its mothership with the mission to research an unknown planet’s ecosystem and help its flora flourish. You start at the ground and work your way out of the stratosphere and back into space. That’s really is. It only takes an hour and half or so to play through, probably around double that if you want to collect everything (the collectables here aren’t arbitrary but rather grant new abilities, the way it should be).
There’s a terrific tranquil ambiance as you make your way skyward. It’s hard not to be wowed by the basic but gorgeous virtual interpretation of nature the game presents. Growing branch upon branch, climbing on and around floating isles of organic green, and bumping into fluffy friendly wildlife makes for an entrancing process that lasts just as long as it needs to.
As much shit as I tend to give Ubisoft for making some of the most formulaic and lazy blockbusters in the industry, I have to commend them for being willing to go out on a limb with the occasional artsy side project. Games like Valiant Hears, Child of Light, and now Grow Home give glimpses into a vastly more creative side of the company and one I sincerely hope we can continue to see. As long as Tom Clancy’s name continues to prove profitable, I’m hopeful this’ll be the case.