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Television Review: Stranger Things

Stranger Things (Netflix; 2016)

The early fall’s undisputed internet buzz champion of online video streaming series, the Duffer Brothers’ exercise in nostalgic Spielbergian/Carpenterian genre film homage has generated far more involved discussion than has been strictly earned by the text itself. Despite its sci-fi subject matter of telekinetic abilities and shadow dimensions inhabited by predatory monsters, Stranger Things is predominantly concerned with broad, conventional themes: high school hierarchies, teenage hormones, secretive and oppressive authorities, grief and loss, family and friendship. But when those recognizable themes and speculative elements are put together with narrative verve, visual flair, and solid characters played by likable actors, a slightly-above-average success in genre entertainment can present as much more.

Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, and from its period clothes and technology to its pulsating synthesizer soundtrack and constellation of popular culture references and period movie homages, it doesn’t let the viewer forget it for a moment. In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, two concurrent mysteries arise simultaneously: a boy disappears, and a girl appears. The boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), vanishes from the vicinity of the run-down home he shares with his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) on the edge of the woods, after leaving an evening game of Dungeons & Dragons (the game’s fantasy nomenclature provides the boys with frames of reference with which to discuss the odd happenings to come) with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Around the same time, a wordless young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) with a shaved head wearing a hospital gown wanders into a roadside diner. Both children and their mysterious ordeals have something to do with a well-guarded Department of Energy laboratory on the edge of town, lorded over by the white-haired Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

Joyce remains convinced that her son is alive and has been communicating with her, even when presented with firm evidence to the contrary and disagreement on that point with Jonathan. She outfits their home with strings of Christmas lights, believing (and not wrongly, it seems) that Will, wherever he might be imagined to be, can blink out messages to her through lightbulbs. Also convinced of their friend’s endurance are Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into whose protection the girl, soon dubbed Eleven (“El” for short), drifts after fleeing pursuit at the diner. She speaks few words, shows little understanding of the world, and displays an impressive and unexplained ability to, well, do things with her mind. Additional allies include Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) disappears soon after Will does, and the Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose astute investigative skills lead him to suspect that there is more to both disappearances than meet the eye.

What proceeds from this premise, and indeed what informs it, is fairly standard genre classics of the time period, much of it telegraphed through overt allusive references: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Mike’s crew rockets around town and outskirts on their bikes, hiding their precious visitor from the sinister government authorities that wish to capture her), John Carpenter’s The Thing (the movie poster is conspicuous in Mike’s basement), Stephen King (in one scene, a suburban mom is reading It). Other reference points are not signposted quite so clearly but are still hard to miss: the shadow-dimension of the Upside-Down from which the titular stranger things emanate is a slavish (and thus distinctly unimaginative) homage to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Nancy even enters it at one point by crawling through a goopy aperture in a tree trunk), and the monster that inhabits it is a hybrid of that film’s terrifying Pale Man, the xenomorph from Alien, and the carnivorous plant from The Little Shop of Horrors.

Another 1980s film totem for the Duffers would appear to be John Hughes high school movies, and much of Stranger Things‘ episode runtimes is taken up in school social politics. Nancy, a bit of a staid straight-A student, is dating rich, opular big-man-on-campus Steve (Joe Keery) but increasingly feels a tug towards awkward loner Jonathan, whom Steve and his dickweed friends pick on, as their shared paranormal mission heats up. Mike and his friends are harrassed by a pair of bullies as well, and Eleven’s telekinetic powers help to even the score.

Indeed, for the most part, Stranger Things‘ character interactions and sci-fi mythology serve to build up to big, dramatically-satisfying standoffs that are resolved with violence: Jonathan against Steve, Nancy and Jonathan (and a special, redeemed guest!) against the creature who snatched those close to them, Eleven against that monster, the school bullies, the DoE thugs, and her surrogate father Dr. Brennan. That these resolutions are telegraphed does not make them unenjoyable or dissatisfying, but the inevitability hews to a generalized feeling while watching Stranger Things. It’s a reasonably involving experience (though like a lot of narratives with a secret enigma at its heart, it becomes less engaging the more of its central mystery is revealed) that is well-made and well-acted (Brown is a particularly riveting young actress, and Ryder is excellent as a mom who refuses to give in to grief, no matter how outlandish her reasons for hope become) but could benefit greatly from pushing at the boundaries of its formula, of expanding its borders at least a little. Stranger Things could, in other words, stand to be stranger.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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