Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Stranger Things Is Both Nothing What I Expected It To Be, And Everything I Expected It To Be

                To start with, my original intent was to watch only the first half of episodes of the new Netflix miniseries Stranger Things. It was the latest thing that everyone was talking about, and my track record with things that come to me pre-hyped is not great, so I was committing to watching only four because I fully expected to be bored by two. Bored is perhaps the wrong state of mind, more likely that I would have more complaints that praises by the end of two episodes.
               But I am very happy to say that is not the case. It’s actually become my almost-opposite experience with Sense8. The latter was not hyped, but I thought was extremely promising due to its creative and cast, started off okay, then kept losing steam even as its first season mysteries unraveled. I was worried about my high expectations as I started. I also really hate accessibility descriptions for movies and shows like, “It’s this meets this!” because that’s either a whole set of expectations that the show now has to meet for me, or if I don’t like the things used in the description, then I’m writing off the show almost immediately. And there were all sorts of reactions I had to how people were describing Stranger Things to me. Stephen King was a constant. I have to admit something. I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King. A lot of his stuff just doesn’t resonate with me. My favorite novel of his is Duma Key, and it feels like no one ever knows what I’m talking about except his die-hard fans. I love the Kubrick Shining, and I know King hates it because it has next to nothing to do with his novel (AND EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE MOON LANDING GUYS!) and that’s just more my speed, I feel. Carrie is the other one I really love. Everything else falls into the category of being just fine to me.

                So to tell me Stranger Things is Stephen King (which I’m not a fan of) meets Twin Peaks (which I’m a HUGE fan of) meets Spielberg (whom I’m FINE with) I am at best confused about how to feel. Here’s the thing, Stranger Things doesn’t really strike me as any of these things. It certainly pays homage and lays tribute to these inspirations: a lot of King references, many Spielberg trademarks, a couple good Twin Peaks shout-outs, along with The Goonies, Alien, and some John Carpenter, and of course, Dungeons & Dragons. So it goes without saying that the series is decidedly 80s, and it captures that spirit and tone amazingly. And I mean, just by that list of things, if you’re going to base your story in an era, that’s a great one to be a part of! That’s the most basic thing that bind so much of those 80s films together: youth, very often kids, come together and while also combating social norms and coming of age adversities, they come face-to-face with otherworldly encounters or fantastical adventures. So it’s based in a tried and true foundation, a formula that works and continues to work. Which is why I’m having trouble discerning if it’s a good series on its own, or it’s good because it’s so steeped in the mythos that inspired it.

                A lot of reviews and recaps praise Stranger Things for its accuracy, if not for the exact timeline and chronology, then certainly for the feel and the atmosphere. The show looks, feels, and reads like an 80s era story. The kid protagonists are a believable and dynamic groups of friends as good as Stand By Me or The Goonies (one kid even has his own freak display like the Truffle Shuffle). The soundtrack is very John Carpenter in the incidental music, while the covers for 80s hits as well as the original tracks are used more than appropriately. But again, does that equal a good story? I don’t care much about adaptation in the way that some people do. I don’t care that Lord Of The Rings wasn’t exactly the book, I care that it was a good movie. Similarly, I don’t think The Hobbit is a bad set of films because it’s a bad adaptation, they’re just bad movies. Same with remakes. Same with genre pieces. Same with period pieces. So I truthfully don’t care how much of the 80s they got right or wrong, I care that it was a good story. How does Stranger Things do as a piece of entertainment?

                Fortunately, there is a whole lot to love about this show. It’s ultimately better, and my personal recommendation, that you just watch the whole thing at once. Considering how many episodes pick up right where the previous one left off and the overall structure, I think that’s the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Watched this way, the momentum builds properly and the pay-offs work properly. I think the plotting has plenty of turns and a good balance of questions and answers to keep you moving from one episode to the next. There aren’t twists, per se, and there’s no reveals that aren’t terribly surprising, which I think effectively moves it out of the true horror genre. But the conventions of horror that it does use are nonetheless effective. Also, if you know D&D, which is used ostensibly as the story’s framing device, you can more or less predict the beats, and judger the show more for how it gets you from point to point, rather than the points themselves.
                The writing is natural and solid, and it’s certainly all bolstered by a powerhouse cast. I’m always impressed by capable child actors, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch amongst the core main cast. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, our three main adventurers, have a great chemistry. The girl who plays Nancy I find to be the strongest of the cast. Jonathan and Steve, while I wasn’t initially blown away by them, really came into their own by the end. And of course, Eleven is compelling, doing so much with so little. Winona Ryder and David Harbour are doing excellent, nuanced work as the put-upon Joyce Byers and the guilt-ridden, drug-addled Chief of Police.

                The most difficult part of any “face the monster” story is once the monster starts putting in full-time appearances. There’s diminishing returns to the final reveal of Signs. There’s a reduced impact for every monster whom we see parts of throughout and then they finally attack full-view. Our monster is sufficiently terrifying, and particularly unsettling, but I was rather surprised it was only one monster that terrorized them the whole time. I was so sure a twist was going to be an eventual second monster. Again, it’s a credit to the cast for keeping the monster unknowable and terrifying, particularly Eleven, as she encounters him in the upside down, and particularly Nancy who brings legitimate fear for pretty much the only time throughout the series as she encounters him in the woods of the other side.

                So overall, that’s my feelings for the show. It’s great. It’s absolutely solid. Writing-wise, acting-wise, there is no reason to not like this show. And any nagging feelings about continuity or inconsistency in terms of the plot are negligible on your viewing of it. Like any good Spielberg film, it’s the drama of the characters that carries us through. And we genuinely care about the characters and what they’re facing, both the extraordinary and the ordinary. You can ignore it for the sake of a great story being told. I do think that once you move past all the genre adaptation and homage, the plot’s a bit thin for an 8-part miniseries, but again, the characters are too strong and too well acted to ignore.

                My final thoughts though, I reserve for my singular problem with the show. And it’s a minor or major problem depending on your perspective. I find it complicated because of its context. Because of the conventions of the storytelling and the era, the person who ends up suffering the most in characterization is the centerpiece of our story, Eleven. She’s traumatized by her life previous to entering the story which leaves her mostly mute. What ends up happening is everyone projects their thoughts on her characterization onto her, from Lucas believing she’s a traitor, to Mike in the end saying she can live with them and be a part of the family. We never gain any sort of indication as to what Eleven herself actually wants. And what I mean by the storytelling conventions of the era, I mean that with the loss of her characterization, she gains powers. It makes her indispensable to the group of boys (who are more than capable except when it comes to fighting) and it makes her drive the plot forward, with Matthew Modine’s bad guy on a quest to get her back and most of the rest of cast attempting to keep her safe. It’s fine for what it is. She’s E.T. She’s Leeloo. But setting something firmly in an era doesn’t mean you have to stick to every convention and every trope of that era. And I think it’s almost irresponsible if you don’t. What makes Shaun Of The Dead, Scream, Cabin in the Woods, even the latest Trek movies so good is that they play with the established conventions of their respective genres. Eleven is Carrie. She’s Jean Grey. She’s the all-important female character with the mysterious past. But like these other characters, she’s never more than a convention of the plot, a tool of the other characters.

                The most glaring scene of this for me was a very touching, very intimate scene between her and Winona Ryder. It’s a well-performed scene, but something about it rings false to me. They’re about to put her in the sensory deprivation tank so she can reach the other world and hopefully track Ryder’s missing son Will down, the impetus for the entire plot of the series. At one point Ryder stops and thanks Eleven for doing this. Despite all the characters at this point being brought up to speed with the traumas and horrors she faced, the possible dangers and jeopardy that her life is put in because of the very same procedure they are about to perform (with more rudimentary equipment, no less) it never crosses Ryder’s mind to say, “You don’t have to do this,” because what’s more important to her is getting her son back, essentially at the expense of Eleven. And sure, the writing of the scene makes it so that Ryder’s character is her protector, her tether to the real world, but considering the implications of what she’s gone through, Ryder needs to be more than grateful to this complete stranger who is also a child.

                Equally tone deaf, like I said for me, is Mike’s promises to her of what she’ll get once they make it through the ordeal and if she can stay alive. But again, we have no clear indication as to what she really wants. They’ve stunted her and made her silent through her trauma, and they’ve removed any agency the character has over the situation. Her willing sacrifice at the end to dispose of the monster is her only moment of complete control, and it’s the expected sacrifice that this character type is allowed to make. I think with such a strong writing staff and cast they could’ve done a lot with Eleven to make her more than just this archetype. Again, I don’t mean Eleven’s bad. The girl playing her is a magnificent actor, but she truly is doing a lot with so little. But in the end, all we know is she wants Eggos. And that feels pretty thin compared to the rest of the cast who arguably didn’t give up nearly as much.

                And the only reason I see this as a problem, is because I firmly believe you can’t say they were trying to be completely pitch perfect with the era. I would believe you, if they hadn’t managed to pull off a complete subversion of another character archetype of that time: the jock idiot boyfriend. Nancy’s love interest throughout is Steve Harrington, who is played like Troy from The Goonies, like Ali’s ex- Johnny in The Karate Kid. He’s the horny older guy just trying to get into the most popular girl’s pants, never calls never cares, picks on the “reluctant hero” Jonathan Byers, and if this were a horror movie, would be killed in the final act, if not end up being the killer himself (a’la Scream).

                But every beat of that archetype is undone by the story. Nancy and Steve don’t have sex the night he sneaks into her room. He actually helps her study. When he starts to bully Jonathan and ruins his camera it’s for good reason: they found out Jonathan was secretly taking pictures of everyone at a party one night, including one where Nancy was undressing! When you think he’s gonna die in the finale, he doesn’t. When you think he’s gonna run in the finale, he jumps in as the hero. And in the end, he gets the girl. Do they have problems here and there? Of course. But the character blooms from the initial stereotype into a more realized character. To a lesser degree, Nancy, Jonathan, Joyce, and Hopper all experience growth as their initial archetype characters. But Steve is the most glaring to me. Why did we bother to redeem this male stereotype and not this female stereotype given the same opportunity? It really does feel like a wasted opportunity.

                I think in the ongoing argument about what makes a good female character, and what is a strong female protagonist, it’s important to recognize nuance and layers. Eleven is a fantastic device of the story, acted more than capably by a very talented actor. She is surrounded by equally talented actors who are playing far more fully realized characters. Like I said earlier in the post and what I said last night as I watched, the three core boys are smart and capable: they know how to work radios, they organize and play complicated D&D campaigns, they are organized, curious, they differ in opinion, and they think critically in times of crisis. Imagine what it would have meant to have these characters be girls. Or at least to have Eleven be as much in control of herself as they are. Or in other words, if screenwriters and filmmakers could make female protagonists as capable as they make child protagonists, we wouldn’t be having this silly argument at all.

                So last word? Watch Stranger Things. The abilities of the storytellers are unmatched, and the pay-off is sentimental but worth it. You are going to be able to ignore any of its shortcomings because of its thrift and momentum. There are things that can be improved and you’ll think about those later. And hopefully future filmmakers will also be thinking of those things, because there’s still a lot of work to be done.