By Kyle Ratsch
Oh man! Fresh off the release of season 2, I had to take a look at the talk of the town, “Stranger Things.” I promptly watched both season 1 and 2 within a 24 hour period and thoroughly enjoyed it. So let’s get into why. Obligatory spoiler warning.
Firstly, my favorite aspect of Stranger Things is that it both pays massive homage to the 80s coming of age film, and mildly deconstructs it (and as any solid anime fan should know, deconstructions are the way to go). This creates great moments of nostalgia, but also addresses some of the (perceived) issues that our cynical minds have with the genre as well.
One of the biggest questions we can ask during movies such as “The Goonies” are, “where are the parents?” or “how useless are the adults, that children are the ones solving the problems?” Stranger things shows both sides of this coin. One the one hand, we have the Wheelers, who somehow manage to go an entire week without noticing that their son is harboring a telekinetic fugitive in their basement, and on the other we have Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers, who uncover government experiments, handle supernatural threats, and devise a way to communicate with people in another dimension via christmas lights.
Seriously, the Wheelers are next to useless. Their only redeeming factor lies solely in the hands of Mrs. Wheeler, who tries desperately to empathize with her children and encourages open communication with them, which shows emotional intelligence that is commonly neglected in some of our more popular media currently (coughmarvel). She doesn’t flip her lid when Nancy lets out that she slept with Steve, but instead focuses on the real issue, that Barb is missing. She also takes a casserole to Joyce, which is the most suburban 80s thing that happens in the entire movie. She, however, somehow manages to miss a government fugitive in her basement, and two teenage boys in her daughter’s room on multiple occasions…
Dustin Henderson sums it up perfectly in season 2, “ Son of a bitch, you’re really no help at all, you know that?”
I feel like they address and perfect the useless adult problem by having the kids and adults work towards the same goal, though often unknowingly. Hopper takes the lead in most of the violence-necessitating plots, punching the appropriate government officials and sneaking into the right high-security laboratories (let’s see Mike Wheeler try that), while the kids take care of Eleven, piece together information, and find wildly important clues. It’s a nice joining of the worlds.
Though, I have to say for Jonathan and Nancy, they ARE NOT bright. I suppose in a way every character in Stranger Things is biting off more than they can chew, but Nancy and Jonathan sneaking off into the woods in season 1 to try and kill the demogorgon IN THE DARK threw up tons of red flags for me. Then setting up a bear-trap with the follow-up plan to set the creature on fire inside their house was pretty stupid. It worked out, I suppose, but they perfectly fulfilled the “reckless” teenager plot line. I guess that’s pretty realistic too, eh?
The danger of the situation is also wildly different within Stranger Things. In so many 80’s child-driven narratives the threat is non-existent. Largely speaking, you can’t kill children in movies, so when your cast is children, they’re all going to live. Episode one has Will Byers being kidnapped by a monster, and just a few episodes later a teenager is killed. This sets the tone. We have a few other character deaths throughout the series, who are mostly adults, and this serves to maintain the tension. Will’s possession in season 2 is disturbing as well, and though none of the main kids die, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think, even for a moment, that Steve and Dustin were not going to be eaten in the tunnels by the demo-dogs.
Bob’s death and Harper’s near-strangling in the tunnels serve to keep the tragedy real and keep that thin veil of 80s happy-ending magic from falling over our eyes too soon. The doses of reality are refreshing. If we’re dealing with incredible supernatural forces, someone is going to die because they knocked a mop over in a closet. It sucks that had to be Samwise, but it had to happen.
Diving just a bit deeper into the deconstructionism, in episode 4 of season 2 we have a delightful cameo in Sean Asten who played on the children’s side in the Goonies, but now serves in the role of the mentor. He tells Will that he ended a recurring nightmare by telling the monster to go away. Quintessential 80’s. It inspires bravery and strength and encourages positivity, hurray! Will faces the mind flayer and tells it go away… and promptly gets possessed. This may look like an 80’s flick set in the 80’s but it certainly is not. I think this was the most important moment in keeping Stranger Things alive and fresh.
Continuing my dive into the enjoyable realism, I think that the majority of the characters are well written and, refreshingly, not complete morons. Benny Hammond was the first character who made this click for me. He finds Eleven stealing from his cafe and follows a full cycle starting from anger through to understanding and then maturely manages his situation. Shame he gets killed.
We also have good ol’ KING STEVE. Love this guy. Well, I don’t really like him, but I do… I think you know what I mean. He starts off as the prototypical jock and bully who is pretty forceful with his advances on Nancy (something I’m not a fan of), but after a breakup, several fights, and dealing with his relationship with Nancy, he begins to understand his immaturity. The scene where he calls his friends and fellow bullies assholes announces a new and better Steve, and I loved it. Also, despite getting beaten up by Jonathan, he’s the one who takes a nail-bat to the demogorgon, not Jonathan. Massive respect.
Stranger things is full of strong character arcs, though they’re not all the clearly defined hero’s journey arc that permeates classic literature. Hopper has something of an arc as he moves from a skeptical low-stakes cop to a surprisingly brave hero, but in season 2 he’s not pigeon-holed into a reformed hero as we see in his arguments with Eleven. Joyce goes from neurotic, surprisingly capable mother to… neurotic still surprisingly capable mother. The kids have small classic arcs of their small perceptions and rules growing to fit something greater than them, mostly involving trust and lies, but I think the real depth of character lies in other places.
The overall pacing of the show was solid too. Simply put, if a 45-60 minute episode does not feel like 45-60 minutes, it has good pacing. The only “unnecessary” section of the show is Eleven’s quick journey to Chicago, which completes her character arc, so I understand it’s necessity, but wow does it destroy the momentum of the previous episode’s ending. The beats are rapid enough that the tension builds well, and they use their flow of information in a way that I believe is critical to good storytelling, which is to withhold information and keep the audience curious. Then, just as we feel some sort of satisfaction or resolution, we receive a piece of information that refreshes our anxiety. My favorite example of this is when Joyce draws a bath for possessed Will. His body temperature is low, so we’ll increase his body temperature with a warm bath for now until we get some answers. The dissonant music swells and our suspicion of something bad begins to mount and then he says to Joyce, “It’s too hot. He likes it cold.” and this plot is blown wide open. We have a problem.
Since I mentioned the music, I’ll briefly touch on the sound design. I’m not exactly an expert, but I think they use tonality very well, and the choice to use synthesizers screams 80’s, but also allows for the excellent use of unnatural sounds at appropriate moments. Season 1 episode 3 has my favorite example. When Joyce discovers that Will’s presence causes the lights in her house to flicker we hear higher-pitched notes with heavy reverb to give the sounds an echoing, bubbly feeling that evokes wonder. Love it.
If it isn’t clear yet, Stranger Things is very well done. I’ll give you my final rating now.
1 - Trash
2 - Average
3 - Meaningful strengths that don’t make up for weaknesses
4 - Very Good
5 - Exceptional
I give Stranger Things a non-committal 4.5 out of 5.
4.5 because it executes everything it sets out to do with near-perfection. The influences and throwbacks are massively enjoyable. They represent 80’s sci-fi and coming of age movies very well, but also evolve the genre and bring something fresh to a genre that, in hindsight, is admittedly trope-filled and cheesy.
HOWEVER, it lacks the mind-breaking wow-factor that I really want out of a 5 rating. No plot-twist is too flabbergasting, no climax too incredible, and no moment too triumphant. For everyone else, it might be a 5 and I wouldn’t blame you, but there’s some epic kick missing here for me.
I’ll end on an unrelated tangent, but my nerves were wracked any time Eleven was pressed to use her psychic powers. Non-anime fans have movies like Lucy and Chronicle, or the classic Carrie, but I don’t think that they capture the horrific potential of telekinetic powers quite like Elfen Lied, From the New World, or Akira. I kept telling the characters, “you don’t fight a telekinetic, you don’t fight a telekinetic” as I recalled the massive blood-splatter from the anime. When Eleven killed the government agents in the climax of season 1, I thought it was a nice middle ground in showcasing how powerful telekinesis is, but not going too over the top.
Hope you enjoyed!
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