Stranger Things (2016)
Directed by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Written by: Jessica Mecklenburg, Justin Doble, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Starring: Caleb McLaughlin, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Matthew Modine, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder
A Netflix Original Series – Available Now
November 6, 1983. A small American town is plagued by electrical faults after sinister goings on at the local Department of Energy building, where a laboratory scientist tries to escape an unseen force running amok. Meanwhile a group of schoolboys split up after a night of boardgames and head home. However one of them isn’t going to make it back. What is this shady government agency up to? How is it linked to a mysterious girl who seems to be on the run during all of this? And what’s with all the mucus growing around the locations they’re investigating?
THE CLASH – MUSIC AND TONE
Is it just me or has that old 80s nostalgia trip actually been pushed into overdrive recently rather than fading over time? With the likes of Turbo Kid and It Follows among many others, this latest eight part offering from Netflix is in a similar vein as other releases in the last few years. Whether it’s your kind of thing or not, the novelty value has certainly evaporated by now. Here they’re aiming for that Super 8 feeling with the D&D playing gang of outcast kids-on-bikes style adventure, albeit one with a modern horror and sci-fi element included. However it’s not that simple as the cast includes many other characters with intertwined stories. But like all these releases the genuine atmosphere and overall tone of an older film is more difficult to capture than the makers seem to realise.
The digital colour correction and the synthesised music do a fair job of emulating the feel of a Steven Spielberg or Joe Dante picture, despite the fact that it never truly has that old Dean Cundy look and the score is more Disasterpiece than John Carpenter. But it’s almost a contradiction to see so many period cars and hairdos in a something with the distinct sheen of a release from this decade. A lot of independent videogames use the same kind of soundtrack too. It’s all part of the throwback feeling of course, but they’re always too crisp and clean. The music, original and licensed, is actually pretty good don’t get me wrong. However it’s never something you can mistake for a long lost adventure film from another era.
If I’m referencing a lot of names here it’s because the series does the exact same thing from one scene to the next, particularly at the start. In the opening episode alone there are huge nods to things from E.T. and even Jaws, while the cast overtly talk about period movies and have noticeable posters on their bedroom walls. The Thing flopped in ’82 guys you can’t fool me. The city police chief dealing with petty misdemeanours and the family dinner table disputes are a clear sign post of influences being worn without any measure of subtlety here. These moments pile up really quickly from the outset to let you know exactly what the makers are going for, whether it’s family friendly or closer to Wes Craven and Stephen King. For some this will be a huge plus point, for others it will be a major distraction. Personally I have to say I’m somewhere in the middle with this, it’s nice but can be a bit much at times. Fortunately after a couple of chapters this all begins to be more relaxed and the strongest parts take centre stage.
WE COULD BE HEROES – OUTLINING CAST AND PLOT
The opening two episodes do a reasonable job of setting up the big mystery beyond all this window dressing, as well as introducing all the characters involved pretty quickly. Though it does give me the problem here of who to include in a list that is certainly not exhaustive. After Will Buyers (Noah Schnapp) has an encounter in the woods with shadowy forces, he vanishes without a tracing leaving his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to search for him during a time when their existing domestic problems were already putting things under duress. Meanwhile in the midst of their own search, Will’s three friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas come across a mysterious girl with a numbered tattoo and truncated social skills. Whether your reference point is The Goonies or Explorers meets Akira they mix it all up so take your pick. The third piece of this narrative triangle is local cop Chief Hopper (David Harbour) who also has his own baggage before all this begins.
The problem early on is that during the essential search and rescue investigations with these different groups, it does have too much to balance at times. There also are highschool clique subplots with Mike’s sister Nancy to cover, with all the typical outcast friend moments and peer pressure sex and alcohol. On top of this the shady laboratory involved in causing recent problems has to be given screen time, and they show a lot of stuff with Matthew Modine’s nefarious doctor running things behind all the security fences and cameras. It jumps around between all this material without a lot of central focus before things settle down. Fortunately by the time episodes 3-4 come along the real drama is allowed to build up and things can breathe a little more. This is where it gets into its stride and the stronger moments start to come together.
In terms of casting things are pretty solid. David Harbour does a decent job as the grizzled sceptic, the cop with vices fuelled by tragedy. His own story gets given some time and it makes for some interesting reveals later. The three kids on their adventure Mike (Wolfhard) Dustin (Matarazzo) and Lucas (McLaughlin) are pretty natural in terms of geek factor and foul language. Mike is the leader and board game master, Dustin is the nerdiest of the three with (real life) missing teeth, and Lucas is the jealous type with a lack of patience when things start to get weird. They’re distinct and fit with the overall tone of the series when they get to be the focus.
The older teens also fit their assigned roles whether it’s being sweet sixteen or just nasty, which I will get to later. To be honest the weakest link is probably Winona Ryder as Will and Jonathan’s mother, who has this anxious compulsion thing going on as she tries to figure out what’s up with the electrical disturbances hinting that her son is trapped in another world somewhere. Initially the frantic mother act completely fits the scenario as things go wrong, but as it all unfolds the whole thing feels really one note whether things are bizarre or mundane. You can tell right away the same shtick is going to play out in every episode, and there’s never any sense of her trying to act calm in public even before things begin to really come apart at the seams. Some range and a sense of escalation would be nice.
As things unfold we get to know more about the new arrival in town, the girl with no name (Millie Brown). Sporting a cropped haircut and what seems to be a hospital gown, she’s dubbed “El” by the other kids because of her tattoo, number eleven. It’s soon very apparent that the people she escaped from are using her for experiments to test unusual mental abilities, and that they have some kind of connection to the world Will could be trapped inside. It makes the central group even stronger in terms of the performances since she’s the best of the young actors. It’s great to see as they all move through periods uncertainty and distrust. Her back story is dolled out through flashbacks which become an instant hook in terms of what to expect in each episode. It also allows them to have plenty of debate about things like X-Men characters as well as some simple fish out of water humour which introduces much needed levity. They just act like dorky AV club kids. But more unease and stress is just around the corner for everyone involved.
ELIGIA – DARKER DEVELOPMENTS
By part 4 things are really starting to build up and it introduces a fair amount of conspiracy paranoia during Hopper’s investigation when out of town state troopers appear mysteriously, acting on orders from ‘the Man with a capital M’. The trail of course leads us back to the energy labs, and he gets a brief glimpse inside which does nothing to shake the feeling something immoral is being covered up. It’s almost like an X-Files style fork in the road for a while. We also get to see things deeper inside this place which the cops are not shown, which adds a lot of sci-fi horror elements as we are shown where the creature plaguing the locals came from. In terms of visual effects some things work better than others and the weird organic matter growing inside the building is a bit too shiny at times. Like the monster itself things are ropey in some shots and work well in others, but I guess that’s just the nature of things on a TV budget. Should have just got a rubber suit you guys. The best moments here are the simple ones, they involve strange and eerie sounds from radios and flashing Christmas lights sending signals from the beyond. The real magic moments in the show are these kind of things; simple but creative.
While the big effects and horror scenes start to become more elaborate as things progress, the character development also starts to build up and by chapters 5-6 things begin to take more interesting turns. Joyce and Chief Hopper join forces after she throws out her dead beat husband (Ross Partridge) who’s change of heart during the fallout of their son’s disappearance is far more cynical than she first imagines. The plot thickens as discussions about things like the CIA’s MKUltra programme and the existence of alternate dimensions are brought into play, adding more layers of paranoia and science fiction.
It also helps that the three kids and their new companion don’t get along all the time, and things become more strained as they head out to find the source of recent events; despite the fact that El clearly knows more than she’s saying. A few added road blocks are encountered as the local Stephen King brand bullies with flick knives show up, which keeps their path from ever becoming too smooth. Meanwhile in the teen plot line Will’s older sister Nancy (Natalie Dyer) finds her own clues and teams up with Jonathan, causing a new rift between her and the in-crowd she was trying to impress. Like everything else it’s not exactly fresh ground they’re covering, but it’s done effectively enough and the added helpings of conflict keep it interesting.
The bigger laboratory settings and the little peaks into the kind of work they get up to are done both in flashbacks and as parts of Hopper’s present day detective work. There are some really nice moments of panic as well as sinister slow building atmosphere. Real sets are used to create things like the ‘upside down’ other-world, the testing chambers and the abstract sequences which represent telepathy. The minimal design of some of these moments is certainly a highlight. They even go beyond mimicking a single decade to include certain visuals that are very reminiscent of Under The Skin. Although it still includes many others closer to the setting, even a tooling up scene that reminded me of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Which is probably about as 80s as you can get. The question remains, where does line between homage and pastiche begin to vanish? You’ll have to make your own mind up about how much if at all it bugs you.
SEE THE DANGER – SHOWDOWNS & FINAL THOUGHTS
All paths eventually converge, with the different bands of heroes coming together – and the bad guys finally catching up with them as things start to build to a finale. At this stage it does start to feel like all their little adventures are taking routes into different genres as the kids race bikes away from a fleet of white vans and the teens set up booby-traps to catch a supernatural threat. It’s fairly consistent I’ll give them that. The nice surprise is that certain clichés get subverted; characters remain interesting but in unexpected ways when the chips are down. The backstories are neatly wrapped up too making for a strong conclusion. Joyce stays as manic and bug eyed as she was in chapter one which threatens to undermine all this, but at least everyone else carries it. It’s hard to say how much if this is down to direction of course, without coming off as too cruel here, but it is a low point.
As well as the character arcs being rounded off, the volume of sci-fi slime and the body count both get pushed up to satisfactory levels, although some of the creature effects never improve despite strobe lighting to hide some of the problems. It has a pretty decent ending without being either too dark and miserable or too saccharine sweet; there’s a good balance. It’s good to see that most of the tangents get capped off properly without them feeling that the mystery could last forever and strung out for eight seasons. That’s not to say there aren’t plot elements left as sequel bait, but it feels just about right as a complete product. Interestingly this makes me concerned how exactly more of this could pan out, since it doesn’t end on a huge cliffhanger to make people beg for more. It pretty much does what they set out to do, so hopefully the writers have something genuinely good up their sleeves if this gets a future expansion.
At worst this could feel like a big rehash to some viewers rather than a heart warming nod to another era. But for those who are into that sort of thing or just want a fairly neatly packaged plot about kids, ESP, monsters and parallel dimensions you’ll probably want to see this whether you subscribe to Netflix already or not.