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? What’s with all the mucus growing around the locations they’re investigating? And how is it linked to a mysterious girl who seems to be on the run during all of this?
THE CLASH – MUSIC AND TONE
Is it just me or has that old Nineteen-Eighties nostalgia trip actually been pushed into overdrive recently rather than fading over time? This latest offering from Netflix is in a similar vein as many releases in the last few years, after the likes of Turbo Kid and It Follows among others. Whether it’s your kind of thing or not the novelty value has certainly evaporated by now. Here they’re aiming for that rose-tinted Super 8 feeling with a nerdy gang of outcasts going on a bicycle riding adventure. In this case a version of that story which includes modern horror and sci-fi elements. However this thread is just one element as the cast includes many other characters with intertwined stories. But is the genuine atmosphere and tone of an older film more difficult to capture than the makers realise?
The digital colour correction and the synthesised music do a fair job of emulating the feel of a 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. It’s almost a contradiction to see so many period cars and hairdos in a something with the distinct sheen of a modern release. A lot of independent video-games use the same kind of soundtrack which can be distracting. It’s all part of the throwback feeling of course, but these projects always look too crisp and clean. This is never something you can mistake for a long lost adventure film from another era. That being said the music, original and licensed, is actually pretty good for the most part.
I’m referencing a lot of names here because the series does the same thing, particularly at the start. In the opening episode alone there are nods to E.T. and Jaws, while the cast overtly talk about period films and have posters on their bedroom walls. The Thing flopped in 1982 guys you can’t fool me. The police chief dealing with petty misdemeanours and the family dinner table disputes are a clear sign that influences will be worn without any measure of subtlety. These pile up quickly from the outset to let you know exactly what its going for, whether these moments are akin to Stephen Spielberg or closer to Wes Craven. For some this will be a huge bonus, for others it will be a major distraction. I’m somewhere in the middle on this; it’s nice but can be a bit much. Fortunately after a couple of chapters this all slows down and the strongest ingredients take centre stage.
WE COULD BE HEROES – CAST AND PLOT
The opening two episodes do a reasonable job of setting up the big mystery beyond all this window dressing. They also introduce all the characters pretty quickly. It does pose a problem here of who to include in a list that is certainly not exhaustive. I’ll leave that to the episodic blow by blow reviews. 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 older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to search for him during a time when their 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, Explorers or Akira it’s all here 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 search and rescue investigations with these different groups it has too much to balance. There also are high-school clique subplots with Mike’s sister Nancy, with all the typical outcast friends, peer pressure, and teenage sex and drinking. On top of this the laboratory causing the recent problems has to be given screen time, and there’s a lot of Matthew Modine’s nefarious doctor behind all the security fences and cameras. It jumps around between all this material without a lot of 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. This is where it gets into its stride and the best 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 a past tragedy. His own story gets given some time and which leads to some interesting reveals later. The three kids on their adventure Mike (Wolfhard) Dustin (Matarazzo) and Lucas (McLaughlin) are pretty natural in terms of childish 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 one 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 actually get to be the focus.
The older teens also fit their assigned roles whether it’s being sweet sixteen or just plain nasty. To be honest the weakest link is probably Winona Ryder as Will and Jonathan’s mother. She 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 dimension somewhere. Initially the frantic mother act completely fits the scenario as things go awry, but as it all unfolds the whole thing feels really one note whether new events 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 have been 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 apparent that the people she escaped from are using her for experiments to test unusual abilities, and that this has some connection to the world Will is trapped inside. In terms of the performances she’s the best of the young actors but it’s great to see them play off her as they go through 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 debate things like X-Men as well as some 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.
ELIGIA – DARKER DEVELOPMENTS
By part 4 things are starting to build up. 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 leads back to the energy labs, and he gets a glimpse inside which does nothing to shake the feeling something is being covered up. It’s almost like an X-Files style fork in the road for a while. A lot of horror elements are added when the source of the creature plaguing the locals is revealed. In terms of visual effects some things work better than others. 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. I guess that’s just the nature of things on a TV budget. Should have just used a rubber costume.
The best moments are the simple ones involving strange and eerie sounds from radios and flashing Christmas lights sending signals from the beyond. The real magic moments in the show are these; 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. 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 actions during their son’s disappearance are far more cynical than she imagined. 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 helps that the three kids and their new companion don’t get along all the time. El clearly knows more than she’s saying and things become more strained as they head out to investigate the recent events. 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 teenager 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 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 suspense. Real sets are used to create things like an ‘upside down’ nether-world, the lab testing chambers, and sequences which represent telepathic visions. The minimal design of some of these moments is certainly a highlight. They even go beyond mimicking a single decade to include visuals that are reminiscent of Under The Skin. Although it still includes many others; there’s 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. 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 – FINAL THOUGHTS
All paths converge with the different bands of heroes coming together. The bad guys also finally catch up with them as things start to build to a finale. At this stage it starts to feel like all their little adventures are taking routes into different genres. The kids race bikes away from a fleet of white vans and the teens set up booby-traps to catch a supernatural threat. But it’s fairly consistent within each thread. 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 episode one which threatens to undermine all this, but at least everyone else carries it. It’s hard to say how much of this is down to direction of course, but without coming off has too harsh 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 it feeling like the mystery could be strung out for ten seasons. That’s not to say there aren’t plot elements left as sequel bait, but it feels like a fairly solid overall package. Interestingly this makes me concerned how a sequel series will pan out, since it doesn’t end on a big cliffhanger to make viewers 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 an inevitable 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 now it’s a nice enough adventure story. For those who are into this 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.