Stranger Things: Review of Netflix’new original series by the Duffer Brothers

Stranger Things is a science-fiction show created by Matt and Ross Duffer, also known under the label Duffer Brothers. Picked-up by Netflix and released on July 15Th of this year, it is a coproduction between 21 Laps Entertainment and Monkey Massacre Productions.

The first season of the show is 8 episodes-long, with a running-time per episode varying between 41 and 55 minutes.

Stranger Things focuses on a group of middle-school boys, fond of science and bike rides: Dustin, Lucas, Mike and Will. They live in the small and fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. And as close-friends do, they do everything together. And when they are not in school, they play in their lair, which is Mike’s basement.

One evening, while biking his way home, from a late game night at Mike’s house, Will gets scared by something in the woods and runs home. Once arrived, and with no one home to help him, he takes refuge in the cabin in his backyard, and seeks to protect himself with a gun. Then, the following instant, he vanishes into the night. That is when Stranger Things starts.

The show explores a lot of topics but listed here are the main ones:

  • Friendship,
  • Science & scientific experimentations
  • Childhood,
  • Adolescence and its turmoil,
  • Family,
  • Relationships,
  • Conspiracy theory,
  • Alternate universe.

Though, only one of them is at the core of the intrigue. And it is friendship.

 

A tale on the power of Friendship:

From the very beginning, there is no denying the strong bond between the four boys. When we first see them on screen, they are playing cards in Mike’s basement. And when Will disappears, their close relationship is put to the test.

From then, their friendship drives the narrative. Will’s absence triggers something in each of the three remaining boys. And while the local authorities start an investigation, the boys decide to launch their own search since they know their friend best.

Friendship motivates them to disobey their parents and brave many dangers and obstacles to find Will. And in that process, Mike, Lucas and Dustin find the mysterious Eleven/El, with whom they will forge another great friendship. But little they know that this strange encounter in the woods, late at night, would be essential in resolving Will’s disappearance.

In regards to the intrigue, this adversity leads Mike to take a central and instrumental place within the group. He wastes no time when he realizes the abnormality of Will’s absence at school.He then quickly instigates the search for Will. He also gains Eleven’s trust and friendship. And soon, his patience and kindness towards El allow her to express herself and confide about the danger she faces.

But Mike is also the unifying element of the show. Everything starts and ends with him. When they find Eleven, he is the first to establish contact with her and eventually a trusting relationship. Then, he convinces Lucas and Dustin to trust Eleven and figures out how to use El’s psychokinetic abilities to find Will. And by sheltering, protecting, taking care of and believing in Eleven, he empowers her. He helps her to find the courage to fight back, for herself and for her friends. Eventually, she braves her fear of the Monster and in the end destroys it.

But there are also adult friendships in the show. The most important one is between Joyce Byers, Will’s mother, and the Chief of Police, Jim Hopper. When she realizes her son is missing, Hopper is the first person she alerts at the police station. And this news eventually triggers something in Hopper. As the story unfolds, we realize that one of the elements that unites them is loss. They both lost a child.

And while we know from the beginning that Hopper’s daughter died, we only learn how in chapter VIII. It is only when he goes in the Upside Down with Joyce, that we get to learn more about his past. Two flashback memories of his daughter indicates that she suffered from breathing trouble and eventually got sick. And when we see him reading to his bald daughter at the hospital, we discover that she had some sort of cancer.

Joyce on the other hand has no tangible evidence of her son’s death. And even when she is faced with a corpse, she refuses to believe that it is her son. She knows it is not him and tries to convince everyone of that. She even reveals that she talks to him through the lights and walls in her house. And eventually, Hopper comes to the realization that Joyce was right all along, and decides to help her find Will, using new methods.

But the more they investigate, the closer they get to a dark secret.

Stranger Things -El

A self-fulfilling prophecy:

When we first lay eyes on Mike, he is narrating a story, while playing a game with his friends in his basement. The story starts with him and his words, which are the very first we hear. And this is what he says: 

“Something is coming, Something hungry for blood. A shadow grows on the wall behind you, swallowing you in the darkness. It is almost here.”

And as the story progresses, we start to realize that Mike already told the story. He gave clues to the audience. The Something he was talking about was the Monster with no face and he actually lived in the walls of the Byers’ house. His tale is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He predicts the Monster’s arrival, the existence of another place, and the lost of innocents’ blood. But he didn’t have the time to finish properly his tale. And so, Mike becomes key in understanding the narrative and the whole concept of Stranger Things happening in Hawkins, especially with Eleven. Finding and saving Will helps him accomplish his quest for answers.

Here, he embodies a modern hero with a special quest: finding his missing friend. And in the process he will grow in strength, learn more on friendship and will tragically find and lose his first love. And so he naturally takes an important place in finding ways to stop this gruesome prophecy.

But it seems that self-fulfilling prophecies are dear to The Duffer Brothers because they have already used that trick in Hidden, their first and only feature film to date. In that film, a little girl named Zoe tells her mother that the Breathers, which are the bad guys, are soon coming to get them at their underground shelter. But the mother doesn’t listen, and of course the Breathers eventually come for them.

And beyond this point, the two projects have other similarities.

The elements of strange in Stranger Things

At the beginning of Chapter V, Mike, Lucas and Dustin start to theorize that their friend could be trapped in an alternate place. And when their science teacher talks to them about the theory of “The Flea and the Acrobat”, they formulate something previously unimaginable and label this place: The Upside Down. Mysterious and rarely seen on screen, The Upside Down is where the Monster lives and keeps his victims. And just as in the Hawkins Lab, strange things happen in this alternate place.

However, in Stranger Things, the elements that are supposed to be strange and inspire horror are not neither.  Moreover, these elements are mostly based on sound and illusion effects. There is nothing impressive or remarkable about the sound effects in this show. Actually, it can be summed up by what we hear in the first minute of the first episode “The Vanishing of Will Byers”. Max and Ross Duffer used very basic sound effects in the show, that they just repeated throughout the eight chapters.

Firstly, there is the long-lasting silence, followed by the noise made by the neon lights inside the Hawkins National Laboratory. Then comes the loud sound of the door being smashed open by the scientist running, the alarm ringing, the man’s heavy and fast breathing, and lastly the Monster’s grunt when it is about to swallow whole his victim in the elevator.

And the Duffer Brothers really have a thing for grunts and breathing noises because they used the same trick in Hidden. As in Stranger Things, the first minute of the film is dedicated to suggesting the presence of some evil. In Hidden there are called “Breathers”. In addition to that, there is also the little girl’s heavy breathing noise, who is one of the three main characters of the film.

Fear is conveyed through sounds, as I pointed out, but also through visual tricks. Indeed, the monster with no face is rarely seen in the film. It is rather suggested or talked about. For example, when Joyce Byers tolds the police about the presence of a monster in her walls while trying to convince them that her son is still alive. There is also the instance when Nancy is lying on her bed with Jonathan, after the incident in the forest. She confides that she can’t close her eyes anymore because she fears seeing the Monster.

But way before going inside the Upside Down, Nancy caught a glimpse of the Monster, when she went back to Steve’s house to check if she could find any clue about Barbra’s disappearance. And of that encounter, she reveals to Jonathan later on, that the Monster didn’t have a face.

But there is also the constant use of lights, especially when they are shaking that helps create a terrifying vibe in the story. But shaking lights are nothing strange in this day and age.

On another hand, a very low amount of people has actually encountered the Monster and are alive to testify about the experience. So most of the time, it lives in the characters’ and the viewers’ imagination through talks, shadows and noises.

But even fear suggestion isn’t done well in Stranger Things. The strings pulled are very easy to detect, so they are less efficient and lose their effects on the audience. And unfortunately for the Duffer Brothers, nowadays there are plenty of well-made movies with far more impressive moves to trigger or suggest fear. Those movies don’t necessary have something special to say and show, but they demonstrate interesting and or remarkable artistic values and choices. And that spectacular aspect of the horror and science-fictions genres are what makes at the very least fifty percent of these movies good. The two genres are made by filmmakers who usually try to outdo themselves with each project and in so are more daring in their aesthetics’ choices, or at least trying. But we can’t even say that they tried here.

In that regard, Stranger Things ressembles Hidden. They both lack subtlety and imagination.

And as for Eleven, she definitely doesn’t qualify as strange in regards to the whole show. The only aspect of her character that can seem strange is the fact that she is not so keen on formulating complete sentences, but rather utters single words or portion of phrases. And even this aspect of her personality is understandable since she only talked a few words with her handler, Dr. Martin Brenner, before she escaped the Hawkins National Laboratory. We can see in her multiple memory flashes that she essentially followed his orders rather than discussing them. And in addition to that, she was the only child in the lab. She was around adults all the time. And furthermore, fear isn’t exactly the best means to make someone talk. And El is governed by lots of fears: meeting/seeing The Monster, the Doctor, coming back to the lab, and doing bad things like killing people. Having psychokinetic powers are only strange for a moment for the characters.  This fact quickly becomes part of their norm since they have already accepted the existence of a Monster and of an alternate world. These details are now part of what they can qualify as their reality.

But of course at the scale of a small town like Hawkins, everything that is happening appears unusual. These events have even more echo, are amplified and inspire stronger feelings strictly because they happen in a small town, within a community where everyone knows their neighbours.

Fortunately, I was able to enjoy other bits of the show as I managed to find some comic relief.

The funny bits of Stranger Things

To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked Stranger Things for a good laugh, especially because it looked very serious and sinister in the beginning. So I wasn’t expecting any funny bits but as it turned out there were. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the following elements were meant to give a laugh, but they certainly had that effect on me.

So for me, the most comical sequence in Stranger Things is also one its oddest and most absurd. It is located in Chapter III, “Holly, Jolly”, around the end of the episode, from 00’39’48 to 00’41’29. In that portion of the story, Joyce is desperate to communicate with her son. So with all the fairy lights she could buy, she gets inside one of her kitchen cupboard and tries to talk to Will. The fact alone of her speaking to Christmas lights is crazy, at least to me, but inside a cupboard, was just too much for me. As if there weren’t enough space in her empty house for her to sit in. It just didn’t make any sense, whatsoever.  So I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridicule of it all. And as tragic and desperate they intended the scene to be, it just fell completely flat to me.

Then, there is little Dustin, with his curly hair and missing frontal tooth. His sometimes stupid, panicky but also witty remarks were refreshing and funny to me.

And finally, there is the clueless and lymphatic husband. I am referring to Mike’s father, Ted. From the first dinner table scene in his family, he gives the impression of not having a care or thought in the world. He just follows his wife’s leads. And clearly, she is the disciplinarian and authority figure in family. So when something happens with their kids, his reaction time is so slow and asynchronous with the rest of the family and the situation, that his remarks fall flat. And when everyone has fled the scene he has the “what did I say-do” face. I found him hilarious in his own way.

With the title Stranger Things, the raving reviews and given the exquisite quality of the content created or streamed by Netflix, I had great expectations for this program. Unfortunately, I wasn’t convinced by Stranger Things. To me, the very basis of the film is quite unoriginal. But even with a weak plot, the Duffer Brothers didn’t manage a technical success. And yet, a plethora of movies and TV series relying and developing that same idea like Species (1995), Firestarter (1984) or The Vanguard (2008) to only name a few, were able to achieve some success. Even having a girl with shaved hair and psychokinetic gifts is stereotypical (Dark Angel). The only positive parts that I take from Stranger Things were the credits and the theme song which were really well done. I must insist that despite my critic I really appreciated the actor play. Also, I must applaud the subtle reference to L.M. Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables, which I am sure inspired the Duffer Brothers while writing the characters of Eleven and Hopper’s daughter.

Stranger Things - Poster

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