Monday, 29 August 2016

Stranger Things

This is a blog about the recent Netflix show, Stranger Things. If you have no interest in this subject then this blog might not be for you. The blog will contain spoilers so if you still want to see the show in a virgin state without any fore-knowledge of what will happen then you should read no further. 

Stranger Things is an 8 part Netflix TV show set in 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana. It is deliberately, knowingly and consciously made so as to reflect numerous cultural references to this time and is set up by some as "Spielberg TV". This label will give viewers a clue as what to expect if they've seen anything from Close Encounters to Poltergeist to E.T: The Extraterrestrial. The show is Sci-Fi with tinges of horror although I must admit I was never once scared and I am something of a softy when it comes to watching horror. The acting cast is largely unknowns (to me at least) but Winona Ryder takes a leading part, another link to strange 80s Sci-Fi-Horror since she was in Beetlejuice. The other actor I recognized was Matthew Modine, who plays a shady government character carrying out experiments of dubious legality.

The plot, in general terms, is about a boy who goes missing near a secret government facility where dark and dangerous experiments are carried out. His young friends, strongly reminiscent of The Goonies for you 80s buffs, resolve to find him as does his mother (Winona Ryder), his brother and the town Chief of Police, Jim Hopper. The Chief's name, I think, cannot have been chosen at random. "Jim Hopper" was an unseen character in the 1987 film, Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Predator this character had been butchered and killed by the titular character before Schwarzenegger and his men are sent in to rescue the people Hopper had been sent to save. There are further Predator references. When it is determined that a creature is coming into our world from another dimension to hunt it is referred to in the script as a "predator". And then there is the fact that the show is set in Hawkins. Hawkins was the name of the first of Schwarzenegger's men killed in the film Predator. Whether these references are real or imagined though is largely irrelevant. (Chief Hopper reminds me of Chief Brody from Jaws.) The show is a deliberate mish-mash of references, real and imagined, and sets out to be so. If you're aware of 80s films, TV and comics you'll have lots to chew on. There are numerous scenes which, if not a homage to other things, are blatantly ripped off from them. This extends from the lift in the government facility being like the one Sigourney Weaver gets into in Aliens to multiple references to the film Poltergeist to Modine being a latter day Smoking Man from The X-Files. These are not all 80s references of course. But that doesn't matter either. Stranger Things wallows in the cross referencing. Its Tumblr TV for the fan fiction generation.

At the heart of the dark, government facility that is the geographical center of the show is the character 011 (Eleven, El). She is a 12 year old girl stolen from her mother who has various mental enhancements such as telekinesis (moving things by power of thought alone). Due to her abilities, which are deliberately sought after and trained by Modine's character, she can pass from our dimension to another one termed in the show "The Upside Down". This is a shadow world, a dark version of our own (seemingly modeled somewhat after Aliens, specifically the Xenomorph cocooning). It is from this dimension that the show's monsters come. It does not necessarily seem that the monsters want anything. They are shown to have no plan or motive but they are shown to enter our world, for example, to find food. It seems they may also be drawn by blood. What interaction there is or has been between the two worlds of the show is not directly probed except to say that Eleven was responsible for tearing a portal between them in the basement of the government facility when she was made to enter the other dimension and became so frightened that her powers literally ripped a hole in the fabric of the universe. The government spooks have seemingly since been probing this dimension with the coercement of Eleven until, that is, she escapes where she runs into the young friends of our missing boy which is where the show starts. 

I have to admit that I find the basic plot interesting. The first thing to note about the show is that I watched all 8 episodes in one go and never really got the feeling that I wanted to stop. I'm at a stage in life now where I no longer feel the need to like things because its expected or because "everyone else does". I think my years have earned me the right just to be brutally honest about if I like something or not and in the last few years I've been more than willing to stop watching things I thought were crap. I have no one to offend or to be offended by anymore now so I can just be honest. And, honestly, the show held my interest. Yes, at first I didn't like it. There are characters more prominent in the early episodes I was wholly unsympathetic to and I wanted them to be got rid of but by the middle episodes the story picked up, some characters faded into the background and others had more prominence. Always central, as one story strand, were the kids which I referred to as The Goonies throughout. Its a shame, then, that for me this group was one of the worst parts of the show. The Goonies is a film I'm aware of but have never watched through completely and this for the reason that a Spielbergian tale of kids getting into adventures is something that I just don't want to watch. If you watch Stranger Things you have to be prepared for one story strand being exactly this. Personally, I find stuff like that schmaltzy and hokey. It wasn't dialed up to 11 here (see what I did there?) but it was not the strongest aspect of the show for me.

One aspect of the show that has garnered numerous comments as I scan my Twitter timeline is the music. However, here, once more, I find myself of a dissenting view. The score and theme tune are electronic (read: synthesizers) and I am followed on Twitter by numerous synth nerds, a category of which I also count myself a member. And yet I wonder what, in this case, I was listening to instead of the synth wonder score these others seem to have been hearing. Among the many 80s references of the show are the films of John Carpenter, especially The Thing, and it occurs to me that the score is intending to be a Carpenter homage. In this case, however, I simply think it fails to do it. I hovered between the view that the score simply didn't fit the show or was simply unremarkable. It certainly wasn't Carpenteresque enough not least due to the seeming lack of Moog bass. I'm afraid it takes more than a few lush analog synth chords and an arpeggio on top to impress me. If you want to hear a genuinely good score to a Sci-Fi project then go and watch Under The Skin (another film referenced here when Eleven visits The Upside Down). The score to that by Mica Levi is outstanding. The score to Stranger Things is not.

So what do I make of the show? Basically, I liked it. It grew on me and the fact I could watch the whole thing in one sitting helped. The first couple of episodes were not endearing to me. If I'd had to wait a week to watch the next I may have ducked out and not bothered. But since today we can download or stream whole seasons in one go there was an immediate chance for the show to improve itself. And it did. By episodes four and five I felt the show was certainly interesting enough to find out what happened in the end. I found the ending weak. Of course, the boy will be found. But some other choices I felt were cop outs or just plain wrong. One character, a teenage girl, goes through the whole teenage love thing in one story strand and the writers made a choice which I frankly flat out disagreed with at the end and this grated. But I think the writers earned the right to tell their own story so if it grated or not its no deal breaker. I did not feel that the dialogue was always the best even if the story outline in general was good and engaging. Those pesky kids, The Goonies, were always on hand but I didn't like their performances except for that of Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. The rest of the performances were good enough without being stand out.

Something should be said about the format as a whole. I admit that I find it a bit annoying that a show sets out to reference lots of other things as a part of its DNA as this show did. But, overall, I feel they handled it pretty well. There were few blatant rip-offs and many subtle reminders. I found myself saying "I've seen this before" numerous times. One of the most obvious was Eleven touching the TV and changing shows which was very reminiscent of Carol-Ann from Poltergeist doing the same. "They're here!" Most of all I think that even though they set out to be in many ways a glorified fan fiction of cultural references they have managed to make their own show and create new characters that others can now make fictions of. The world they have created is as credible as any of the other fictional worlds they relied upon to help tell their tale. Apparently there is to be a season two and I'm at least intrigued enough to give it a go if not commit to the whole thing based on what they've done with season one. Personally, I'd like more about The Upside Down and Eleven's powers and less pesky kids and romance story lines. But that's just me.

No comments:

Post a Comment