Like the Vale of Shadows: Stranger Things

Stranger Things — First Season (2016)

A refreshing homage to the ‘80s (especially Steven Spielberg’s movies) that will be pure nostalgia for those who grew up in that decade

Stranger Things


Cre­at­ed by Matt Duf­fer and Ross Duf­fer (The Duf­fer Broth­ers). Star­ring Winona Ry­der, David Har­bour, Finn Wolfhard, Mil­lie Bob­by Brown, Gat­en Mataraz­zo, Caleb McLaugh­lin, Na­talia Dyer, Char­lie Heaton, Cara Buono and Matthew Mo­dine. Also star­ring Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Shan­non Purs­er and Ross Par­tridge.

One of the best feel­ings that those who grew up in the 1980s will prob­a­bly have when watch­ing Net­flix hit se­ries Stranger Things is, of course, nos­tal­gia. Matt and Ross Duf­fer made some­thing that tru­ly looks and feels like it was made in the ‘80s. The aes­thet­ics, the style, the elec­tron­ic music…everything screams ‘80s and brings to mind es­pe­cial­ly the movies made by Steven Spiel­berg in that decade. Then, af­ter nos­tal­gia, comes cu­rios­i­ty. There are so many grip­ping (and seem­ing­ly un­re­lat­ed) mys­ter­ies in Stranger Things that any­one cu­ri­ous enough will be in­stant­ly hooked — and if there is one thing that the show knows how to do, it’s to make us crave for more. Don’t be sur­prised if you see your­self binge-watch­ing the whole sea­son at once.

But at the same time, I must ad­mit, I felt a bit of fear. The only film that the Duf­fers made be­fore, Hid­den (2015), also re­lied on a com­pelling mys­tery that kept us on the edge of our seats, dy­ing of cu­rios­i­ty to fi­nal­ly know what it was all about. When every­thing was fi­nal­ly re­vealed, how­ev­er, the movie near­ly col­lapsed, un­able to bring the twists and rev­e­la­tions into a co­her­ent whole with­out cre­at­ing plot holes and in­con­sis­ten­cies. Con­sid­er­ing the huge amount of nar­ra­tive el­e­ments that Stranger Things brings to the ta­ble, I feared what I now call the “Lost Syn­drome” (yes, a hint to the ex­cel­lent but over­ly labyrinthine TV show); that is, a lot of mys­ter­ies and ques­tions but too much con­fu­sion to an­swer them. Some­times, my friends, less is more.

Still, in the present case, the Duf­fers man­age to find a way of putting every­thing to­geth­er af­ter com­ing up with a lot of in­trigu­ing mys­ter­ies: the van­ish­ing of a boy; a fugi­tive tele­ki­net­ic girl; a face­less mon­ster that crawls out of walls; a top-se­cret gov­ern­ment lab try­ing to con­trol a su­per­nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non; etc. Tak­ing place in No­vem­ber of 1983 in the small town of Hawkins, In­di­ana, Stranger Things be­gins with the sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance of 12-year-old Will By­ers (Noah Schnapp) af­ter an en­counter with a creepy crea­ture that fol­lows him home. From then on, what we fol­low is the des­per­ate ef­forts of his friends, his moth­er Joyce (Winona Ry­der) and po­lice Chief Jim Hop­per (David Har­bour) as they try to find out where he is and bring him back.

One of the main com­plaints I have been hear­ing about the se­ries is that it is not orig­i­nal. Why, of course it isn’t; it is sup­posed to be a throw­back to the ‘80s. And orig­i­nal­i­ty doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly im­ply qual­i­ty, nor the lack of it means it won’t be good. Tropes are tropes be­cause they work, and more of the same can al­ways be good if done well. So why not just en­joy and ap­pre­ci­ate what it is try­ing to do, right? First of all, it is a won­der to see so much pas­sion in re-cre­at­ing the feel of the ‘80s, not only in the art di­rec­tion — with its CRT tele­vi­sions, type­writ­ers and old tele­phones — but also with a mu­sic score that uses syn­the­siz­ers and a sound­track that in­cludes The Clash, The Seeds, Toto, Jef­fer­son Air­plane, For­eign­er, Joy Di­vi­sion, Echo & the Bun­ny­men and more.

Not to men­tion, of course, the gor­geous open­ing cred­its whose font ob­vi­ous­ly draws from old cov­ers of Stephen King nov­els. No­tice even the flick­er­ing of the im­age that makes it look like it was ac­tu­al­ly record­ed on film. And let’s not for­get the nu­mer­ous vi­su­al — and nar­ra­tive — ref­er­ences along the se­ries to movies like E.T. the Ex­tra-Ter­res­tri­al (1982), The Goonies (1985), Stand by Me (1986), Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind (1977), Pol­ter­geist (1982) and, of course, Stephen King adap­ta­tions, like Car­rie (1976) and Firestarter (1984). They are every­where, like the key mo­ment when the kids meet the strange tele­ki­net­ic girl Eleven (Mil­lie Bob­by Brown) for the first time, a ref­er­ence that will be very ob­vi­ous for any­one who has ever seen E.T.

Speak­ing of which, some peo­ple have also com­plained that they wished the se­ries fo­cused more on the kids than so much on the adults. I per­son­al­ly love how it doesn’t make the dis­cov­ery of the su­per­nat­ur­al an ex­clu­siv­i­ty of chil­dren. Lead­ing a great cast, Winona Ry­der steals the show as the des­per­ate moth­er who starts to be­lieve that Will is try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with her through lights (Pol­ter­geist, any­one?). It is a very in­tense per­for­mance, and she even con­vinces us that she would rec­og­nize her own son’s breath­ing over the phone. She is so good, in fact, that she makes us not want to kill her for scream­ing Will’s name the whole time in the most dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions (there is a De­mogor­gon around, lady!)

But, of course, it is the kids who make Stranger Things as re­fresh­ing as those movies from the ‘80s, es­pe­cial­ly Gat­en Mataraz­zo, who is hi­lar­i­ous and gets to have the best lines (“You re­al­ly need to learn more about com­pass­es”). Some­times, these kids sound too much like adults, but they are al­ways con­vinc­ing. And the sense of hu­mor is ac­tu­al­ly one of the best qual­i­ties of the show, which even in­cludes a price­less joke on how easy it is for two teenagers to buy a whole lot of things in a gun shop in In­di­ana. As for the rest of the cast, David Har­bour does a nice job as a char­ac­ter moved by a per­son­al loss, while Matthew Mo­dine is sad­ly wast­ed as a one-di­men­sion­al vil­lain that seems more like a wax sculp­ture than a hu­man be­ing.

Stranger Things has its qual­i­ties, that’s right, and they in­clude the ef­fec­tive vi­su­al ef­fects (I love the de­sign of the Up­side Down with those small cot­ton-like par­ti­cles float­ing in the air) and fan­tas­tic scenes such as a lit­tle girl see­ing the De­mogor­gon com­ing out of a wall or the mo­ment when Joyce de­vis­es a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Will us­ing Christ­mas lights. It is also a won­der to see a well-writ­ten di­a­logue like the one be­tween Joyce and Hoop­er in the fourth episode, a les­son on how to avoid clichés such as “You are not well” and so on. And how could I not go crazy with a teacher’s won­der­ful ex­pla­na­tion about the way to ac­cess an­oth­er di­men­sion or an awe­some mur­der scene to the sound of “White Rab­bit” by Jef­fer­son Air­plane?

While some­times the show sur­pris­es us by of­fer­ing hints and in­for­ma­tion that will be im­por­tant lat­er (“The wa­ter turns into ce­ment. Hits you like a ton of bricks”), some things, on the oth­er hand, are a bit ob­vi­ous, like the good-heart­ed pure girl who wears most­ly pink and feels di­vid­ed be­tween the school jock and the qui­et kid who stalks peo­ple with his pho­to­graph­ic cam­era. I don’t know if this is sup­posed to be a nod to the tropes and clichés of ‘80s movies, but it be­comes more an­noy­ing when said qui­et kid, Jonathan (Char­lie Heaton), de­cides to sac­ri­fice a wound­ed an­i­mal to spare the young damsel in dis­tress from the bur­den of do­ing so.

An­oth­er prob­lem is the un­even pac­ing. Af­ter an ex­cel­lent first episode, the rhythm drops in the fol­low­ing two episodes, only to be lift­ed lat­er again and so on. The sixth episode, for in­stance, is such a dull and pre­dictable in­ter­lude. There are some in­con­sis­ten­cies here and there too. One ex­am­ple is Eleven be­ing able to find the boys in the mid­dle of nowhere and save them from two bul­lies, or the fact that ini­tial­ly she doesn’t seem to speak or un­der­stand Eng­lish but lat­er on man­ages to for­mu­late en­tire sen­tences with­out much prob­lem. And what to say of the ridicu­lous scene in which a girl screams but the only wit­ness is con­ve­nient­ly look­ing down only a few me­ters away and doesn’t see or hear any­thing?

Stranger Things also gets a bit messed up with the rules of its own uni­verse. For in­stance, if the De­mogor­gon can smell or sense even a drop of blood from an­oth­er di­men­sion, then why the hell doesn’t it show up every time Eleven bleeds from her nose? And I won’t even give too much thought about the in­sane agree­ment made in the fi­nal episode, which doesn’t re­al­ly make sense (I mean, what would the vil­lains gain from that any­way?)

But the show com­pen­sates for its flaws with a lot of con­vic­tion, find­ing even space to men­tion Michael My­ers, He-Man and the oc­cu­pa­tion of Lebanon by Is­rael in the ‘80s. And de­spite a very long epi­logue in the last episode, it does have a great con­clu­sion — open enough to al­low for a new sea­son but wrapped up quite well to work as a de­fin­i­tive end­ing. As for me, I’m def­i­nite­ly hop­ing for more to come. I don’t think I’m done with the ‘80s yet.

Au­gust 4, 2016


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