Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stranger Things

Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Shannon Purser
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                                 **Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Minor Plot Details**

If you told me a month ago what I'd most need out of entertainment in 2016 would be a final, missing season of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories nearly thirty years after the fact, delivered through the spirit of The Goonies, E.T., Poltergeist, Close Encounters and Stand By Me, I'd call you crazy. And that's what's so funny about knowing what you need. Sometimes you just don't until it's arrived. A one or two line description of Netflix's nostalgic supernatural series from The Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things, could have easily been met with some collective eye rolling for fairly obvious reasons.

Netflix's Stranger Things
Telekinesis, alternate universes, government experiments, other-worldly creatures aren't topics that cause me much excitement anymore. In fact, my general interest in science fiction and horror genre has been on such a steep, steady decline in recent years, not only failing to generate trigger the exuberance it once did, but now actually inducing audible groans. Some of that's undoubtedly attributed to age and evolving tastes, but there was always a part of me holding out hope that it was also a quality issue, just needing the right project to come along and impress. Now, it's here.

After watching the eight most mind-blowing episodes of original content Netflix has yet produced, I couldn't help but think back again to Spielberg, and to a slightly lesser extent, Stephen King, who's already weighed in with high praise. Did Spielberg watch it? What did he think? Has he met the kids? This might be the first time I've this strongly wondered or cared about his opinion on anything in years. And that's not a knock on him anymore than it is on myself and others in a similar age bracket who grew up spoiled on the movies he directed and produced in the 80's. Filmmakers evolve and it's at least somewhat unfair of audiences to expect them to keep repeating themselves, but man was Spielberg ever completely in his wheelhouse making those, regardless of whatever well-received work followed.

This will always be the era for which Spieleberg is most remembered and it's been channeled with such honesty and authenticity here, succeeding where so many imitators failed. If much of that is in the tone and execution then The Duffer Brothers nail it, using the 1980's setting to do more than invoke warm, fuzzy childhood memories, instead systematically removing all the shackles restricting most modern-set efforts of the genre. It was at once a more innocent yet entirely less innocent era, all of which is magically invoked and reflected through its story and these kids. In other words, it's a keeper and easily the biggest, most welcome surprise so far this year. In any medium.

The Gang: Lucas, Mike, Eleven and Dustin
Hawkins, Indiana. 1983. A marathon game of Dungeons and Dragons with friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gatan Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLoughlin) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) ends in mystery when 12-year-old Will disappears on his way home from Maike's house after an encounter with a strange, threatening creature. After discovering Will's absence the next morning, his frazzled,  single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and outcast older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) enlist the help of grizzled, bitter police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose investigation into the disappearance awakens him from a purposelessness he's been experiencing since a personal tragedy derailed his life. All clues lead him to the government-backed Hawkins National Laboratory and their head scientist, the creepy, Andy Warhol-looking Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who will stop at nothing to protect the lab's top covert experiments and research.

With Mike struggling to come to terms with the fact that one of his best friends is missing, he must also contend with completely apathetic parents (played by Karen Buono and Joe Chrest)  and distracted good girl older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who's too smitten with popular school jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) to care about anything going on with her brother. Fortunately, Mike, Lucas and Dustin stumble upon Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a scared young girl with a buzz cut they find in the woods with telekinetic abilities who may have answers as to what's happened to Will. The gang befriend her, with Mike going so far as to hide her in his basement without his parents' knowledge as the two form a special attachment. With Hawkins Laboratories closing in and the truth about how Will's disappearance ties to the creature and Eleven becoming apparent, the boys need to stick it out for the adventure of their lives, even as Joyce insists her son is alive and trying desperately to communicate.

This is a series you can pretty much go to town in describing without fear of giving anything away since so many of its surprises are hidden between the crevices, actually have very little to do with plot. While Amazing Stories is a decent starting point for comparison's sake, that's slightly misleading since this a single, standalone story rather than part of an anthology (at least thus far) and that show creatively missed about as much as it hit. While each of these episodes given a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style chapter title, even just one of them would undoubtedly rank as the strongest entry in that short-lived 80's series' wildly mixed catalog of quality. But the feelings and intentions associated with it remains. In so many ways, Stranger Things could be viewed through the prism of what Spielberg's expectations were for his short-lived TV project, which couldn't thrive at the time due to his exploding feature film career.

Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Laboratories
With an opening title card presented in a recognizably vintage font inspired by Stephen King paperbacks, and accompanied by a John Carpenter-infused synth score (courtesy of the Austin-based band SURVIVE), the pilot episode let's us know we're in for it. And while it's true the remainder of the season leaves viewers aghast at the period specific references, hidden 80's Easter eggs or costume, soundtrack and production design, none of that would matter if the characters were inauthentic or the story wasn't handled this skillfully.

The initial skepticism of watching a season of TV centered around solving the mystery of a 12-year-old boy abducted by a monster that resembles The Thing is wiped away by the second episode when it becomes clear that this is a show that treats the genre and the kid characters inhabiting it with intelligence and respect. Tearing a page out of Jaws, we don't see the creature all that much so when it does appear its presence actually means something, with its eventual impact having been gradually built off-screen over the course of multiple episodes. 

The special effects (which are quite good) just might be the only modern element of the series, but there's a B-movie quality to them that still fit right into place in this world. And there's no mistaking that the Duffers have very much created a world, or a couple of universes to be exact, where anything seems possible and kids and adults behaved in a way that could seem jarring to anyone that didn't grow up on 80's TV or movies this is paying tribute to. But if you did, this will feel like going home.

Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy anticipate the worst
By today's standards, it would appear the kids are almost given a dangerous amount of autonomy and independence by their parents, allowing them to frequently go off on their own with few consequences. While the plot itself is supernaturally unbelievable in nature, the fact that these kids would go unsupervised for days is not. Nor is the possibility that one of them could reasonably hide a kid in their basement for nearly a week without parental knowledge. If the adults just seemed to be more hands-off then Mike's epitomize this attitude, at first showing a shocking lack of empathy regarding the disappearance of their son's friend.

The minimal technology of the era also leads to more exciting, suspenseful situations and better storytelling as there are many points during the series that, save for their walkie-talkies, these kids have no way of communicating the harm they're in, forced to use their resourcefulness and imagination to come up with solutions. This is where it most strongly resembles The Goonies, with no winking at the audience or talking down to children like they're sub-humans. They curse, pull knives on each other and do all sorts of other things you'd never see today in a any series starring children. And only does the very real threat of death exist, it occasionally even occurs.

While the characters are most definitely recognizable "types" from 80's entertainment and even beyond, it's enthralling seeing all of them eventually subverted and challenged while serving the grand design of this genre-bending exercise. The kids each have identifiable personality quirks, with the actors giving some of the best child performances we've seen in ages. There's the always entertaining, toothless mediator Dustin played by newcomer Gaten Matarazzo, stealing scenes and hamming it up as really entertaining comic relief . Caleb McLaughlin's Lucas is the rebellious, free-thinking skeptic of the gang with most of his concerns about Eleven being justified given the situation. We don't get much of Noah Schnapp as Will Byers considering he goes MIA in the first episode, but his few scenes establish him as an outwardly nerdy, nice kid with the ability to summon the inner toughness to fight for his survival if necessary. And it ends up being very necessary.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven
Bullied at school and feeling little connection to his old sister and parents, Finn Wolfhard's Mike forges a deep bond with the verbally and emotionally limited Eleven, but one his friends believe only stems from his excitement that a girl is actually talking to him. The friendship that develops between El and these kids, and their attempts to hide her from the government agency both honing and exploiting her powers, is the first thing everyone talks about when discussing the show. Well, that, and Millie Bobby Brown's revelatory performance as Eleven. Simultaneously portraying a naive little girl first learning how the outside world works and a pre-programmed machine both frightened and protective of her skills, she's the big breakout here, with her character most heavily invoking the memories discussed in association with this show, most notably surrounding E.T.  Some of her most memorable scenes involve her wonderment and excitement over simple things like Eggos or a La-Z-Boy Recliner, or the boys trying to put a dress and make-up on her.

As the only one with the ability to locate Mike, El is eventually torn between the only world her young mind knows and this new one with the foreign, but welcome concept of real friends and family. Brown's scenes opposite both Wolfhard and Ryder are the strongest and most touching of the series, particularly one where Mike starts making plans for her to stay with his family permanently. Of course, we know why that can't happen, and even as we hope for at least the second best outcome for her, the scene still rips us apart. As does the mere suggestion that the possibility exists that we've seen the last of Eleven. Regardless of where they go from here, this talented young actress's card is punched for superstardom.

Winona Ryder as ax-wielding Joyce Byers
Similarly, there's something that just feels so right about Winona Ryder as frantic single mother and store clerk Joyce Byers, to the point that she's irreplaceable. More than just the nostalgia factor of returning Ryder to the decade during which her career began, she's doing it this time as something she's never played before: A grieving mother.

Falling through the cracks for a while, her career was always built on being the cool, hip young chick, but when he she aged out of it, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with her. This feels not just like a comeback, but a full-blown homecoming, with material that plays to her inherent quirkiness while still giving her big dramatic opportunities opposite the adult and child actors (the latter she should understand better than anybody given her past).

Ryder leaves enough room to make Joyce's insistence that her presumed dead son is communicating with her seem like both the ravings of a complete lunatic and a reasonably desperate mom whose son's gone missing. Just watch how she plays the scene where she asks (or rather demands) her boss give her an advance. Undoubtedly high on the list of actresses everyone wanted back in a big way, this feels as if it was written specifically for the now middle-aged but still undeniably youthful actress, taking into account where her career started and, where we hoped, it would eventually end up under ideal circumstances.

David Harbour as Chief Hopper
At first, the blunt, grumpy Chief Hopper would seem to be one of Joyce's biggest doubters, until the evidence starts adding up, and also begins dredging up his own personal demons. The more we learn about his past the more complex he becomes, and well-traveled, but anonymous character actor David Harbour (a consistently solid presence in every project preceding this), takes it to a whole new level here, gradually peeling back the layers of Hopper's "tough guy" persona. We're surprised to discover he's an excellent cop, but perhaps even more surprised to eventually realize how much he cares.

Just as integral to the investigation, if unintentionally, are the teen characters, who on the surface could be viewed as composites from The Breakfast Club before revealing themselves as three-dimensional characters. It's again to the benefit of the series that these roles are played by unknown actors, conveying a certain believability and freshness that couldn't be achieved with big, recognizable names above the credits. Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery and Shannon Purser are all exceptional in bringing something completely different to whom we'd label the good girl, the weirdo, the jock and the nerd, respectively.

Steve, Nancy and Barb
As things develop, motivations change, and results of Nancy's situation and how it manages to organically link to main supernatural storyline is one of the better late-season rewards. and Keery's oddly familiar-looking Steve stands has possibly the most satisfying journey of all the supporting characters. What they do with him is smart and surprising, sure to become a key talking point in discussing how the writing succeeds in even the smallest of ways.

Add to the list of accomplishments the writing of the Mr.Clarke character, a science teacher who's somehow able to explain alternate universes and space-time tears in perfectly logical terms that any 12-year-old could understand, especially these. The Duffer Brothers' Spielbergian ability to never have the adults talk down to kids is most evident here, with Clarke rarely taking a break from encouraging and feeding their curiosity to learn. He's such a minor character, but even this depiction highlights just how much has changed in thirty years about how teachers are portrayed onscreen.

It's tough to tell which of the show's nostalgic influences were conscious choices made by its creators and which may have unconciously seeped in, as not all are homages from decade's past. What it brings back is the idea of the government as the evil, controlling force manipulating the public and exploiting science for its own benefit. All the E.T. comparisons are right on target but the actual plot more closely resembles the 2011 Canadian cult sci-fi horror film, Beyond The Black Rainbow, also taking place in 1983 and featuring an aging hippie scientist conducting telepathic experiments on a young girl.

Eleven trapped in the Upside-Down
While that still criminally underseen head trip is far more inaccessible and abstract than this, its aesthetic evocation of the paranoid mood of that decade is comparable. It's hard not to be reminded of it every time the story flashes back to Matthew Modine's creepily calm Dr. Brenner and his interactions with El in the lab. And upon glimpsing the black, watery Upside-Down dimension El is able enter, it's also hard not to immediately think of Under the Skin, reminding us that the series also may have channeled more contemporary references. 
This is obviously a huge victory for Netflix, as Stranger Things came completely out of nowhere with little advance buzz and relatively minimal promotion. Given the nature of the project, it's easy to appreciate the old school approach of making something great and trusting the audience to discover it and spread the word. It worked. This wasn't shoved down our throats or overhyped since there was simply no need. Known for taking chances on fringe programming that more mainstream networks tend to pass on, everyone involved likely shared the general idea that the Duffers had something special here. And did they ever.

When this season came to its spectacular conclusion I actually found myself upset that it was over, but equally concerned about what's next. These eight episodes were just so perfectly constructed and tightly paced that I almost want it to end now, fearing a second season could tarnish this. But you have to do it. There's simply no choice. The question is whether you literally take the anthology route by telling a whole new story or continue with this one? The ending leaves no doubt as to the decision and it's the right one.

The gang sticks together
There are moments containing genuine shocks and scares and others when the adventure is just plain fun. The tone's handled perfectly, with its creators realizing the goal wasn't necessarily to recreate the decade (though they do damn good job), but replicate our memories of watching movies and shows from that era. I suppose all those little details, but if someone asked me exactly how the Duffers managed it, I'm not sure it's even explicable.

It goes beyond the technicalities of being shot similarly, making the right wardrobe and set choices, or even writing authentic child characters. It's like they were able to hit this nostalgic nerve that's never been tapped before, making the show as much about us and the experiences we bring to it as what's on screen. In barren landscape of disappointing summer popcorn movies, Stranger Things is the best 80's summer blockbuster that isn't a movie or made during that decade. But good luck convincing yourself of that while watching.  

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