Genre: TV / Science-Fiction
Synopsis: A child’s disappearance and a strange girl with unusual powers unearths hidden, topsy-turvy secrets in a small wooded town.
Special Features: n/a
In crafting their homage to 1980s PG-thrillers with Spielbergian and Kingian overtones, Duffer brothers Matt and Ross never lost sight of the central story: a mother searching for her missing child. Much in the way Twin Peaks (1990-1991) was about a community grieving for the loss of its genuine and cosmetic innocence after the death of young teen Laura Palmer, the loss of innocence and assigned guilt is equally potent in this compact 8-episode season. Stranger Things is part of Netflix’s attempts to elevate its position from content provider to online broadcaster, controlling its original productions from the top-down instead of licensing quality productions from others, or engaging in co-productions.
It’s a smart move, funding unique shows with essential episodes rather than filling in time slots every fall with full seasons augmented with a few filler episodes – the archaic formula that more often than not had networks airing shows long past their Best Before dates.
Cosmetically, Stranger Things is packed with superb set décor from the era, costumes, cars, and a level of consumer technology that’s very limited. Not unlike J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) where the kids had to wait for their roll of Super 8 film to be developed before realizing their unique discovery, ST’s super-sleuths do not use / have access to home computers and the internet – research comes in sparse nuggets, if not from reference books, like the home encyclopedia.
The world created by the Duffers is a small yet moderately urbanized town where pricey consumer goods haven’t yet infiltrated their world, hence kids using their imaginations to create fun, excitedly playing Dungeons & Dragons instead of video games, and using that zest to scamper about town on bikes, communicate with brick-thick Radio Shack Realistic Walkie-Talkies with poor reception and low battery power.
Elder brother Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) of missing boy Will (Noah Schnapp) has a 35mm camera, but his shutterbug habits are considered outré by high school peers and bullies in an insular semi-suburban world where fantasy play and creativity are eschewed in favour of hanging out, shooting shit, and getting drunk now & then when parents are away.
The ongoing streams of guilt shared among characters are as potent as in Twin Peaks and Abram’s own guilt-ridden creations, especially Lost (2004-2010): ST’s Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder, who’s phenomenal) is a single mother juggling work and doing the best for her two sons in a run-down house, and there’s a more than palpable attitude among other citizens that a mother being separated from her husband makes her an outcast.
To those with big mouths, gossipers, and a biased majority, the Byers are losers because they just can’t keep their shit together. Joyce’s guilt seethes deeply during Season 1 because she was too busy to note her son’s absence until late morning. The fear Will may be dead ultimately climaxes in a potent series of encounters with her ex-husband, the police, and social peers.
Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) lives with the guilt of having lost his daughter to disease, and soon after, his marriage; and popular girl Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) is guilt-ridden when her best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) vanishes while Nancy’s getting drunk and losing her virginity with rich boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).
A series of pivotal events are connected to a strange girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who escapes from a CIA-style compound that sits adjacent to the town, its forest, and a huge mining pit; and like the meek alien in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), she’s wanted by creepy federal agents and chased like a prized commodity for her potential otherworldly powers. Only the trio of D&D boys are willing to risk everything to protect her, and only Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) is a true friend.
Matthew Modine is Dr. Martin Brenner, the soft-talking, silver-haired federal manipulator who commands a high-tech posse tasked with bring back his weaponized ‘daughter,’ and tying everything together is an “upside-down” world – a hidden alternate dimension that’s not unlike the grim, glob-infested alt-house in Poltergeist (2015) – from which a creature skulks and preys on adults and children.
(ST’s ties to the Poltergeist franchise also extend to the original 1982 film. Where mom Diane Freeling communicates with missing Carol Anne using a flickering Sony TV, Joyce Byers strings together Christmas lights and uses their blinking to track Will’s returning presence. Secondly, just as a rope is used to pull Diane and medium Tangina from the netherworld where Carol Anne is trapped, ST’s Dr. Brenner sends a man into the upside-down world tethered to a steel safety cable in case he becomes trapped or molested by the walking Venus Flytrap creature.)
The Duffer brothers showrun the series, but they handed scripts and occasional directorial chores to other teams, and quality never dips – a sharp problem that plagued Twin Peaks when a second season was hastily commissioned, and in classic network protocol, Season 2 became increasingly packed with dead-ends and one-off oddities before the show suffered a total implosion and network cancellation.
The mostly lesser-known actors in ST are exceptionally well cast, and the lack of chiseled models and buffed heroes ensures the Duffers’ kids and teens are believable. The all-synth score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (members of Survive) is the final glue that ties together action, story strands, emotional relationships, deepens subtext, and magnifies the radiant aura of this affectionate but not earnest homage to 80s kid-friendly escapism. The Main Title design is a minimalist work of art, using a font characteristic of a Stephen King novel that interconnects and assembles as the superb main Title music pulses to a closing chord.
Season 1’s screenwriters do drop a few obvious in-jokes, but they’re kept to a minimum, and if there’s any major issue with ST, it’s the pacing of the pilot episode which has rather manic editing. The Duffers may have wanted to start the show with a bang, but it’s a little too frenetic; subsequent episodes are taut but less reliant on fast cuts, since each episode’s careful momentum is sustained by drama, atmosphere and score.
Netflix’s show quickly emerged as a major hit in 2016, but its unavailability on DVD and Blu as of this writing is both a clever and frustrating ploy to entice future subscribers, and a disservice to fans wanting to relish, relive, and devour the show, much in the way movie and TV fans were able to do so via tape, laserdisc, and DVD with special features during home video’s heyday.
At some point the show has to emerge on disc – its following and substantive fan base mandates merchandising beyond soundtrack albums and P.R. treats – but for now, as Season 2 is poised to debut Oct. 31, 2017, the emerging network will have to weigh the viability of physical media for a show steeped in an era when physical was the norm.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review