Monday, September 5, 2016

I saw Stranger Things...

I saw the Netflix/Duffer Brothers production of "Stranger Things": the first season, anyway. Yeah, I'm a johnny-come-lately on this, but I've a hunch that many of you haven't yet picked up on this '80s horror/sci-fi homage, so to entice, I'm offering my little assessment.

Keep in mind: "Stranger Things" isn't anything new when it comes to such tributes. Hell, J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" and the bonus episode of the anthology, "Penny Dreadful" (not the show, folks, but the unrelated, Eliza Swenson movie that came before it) did much the same, though with considerable more brevity.

The Duffer Brothers' production is eight episodes long: rather like an extended version of a Stephen King miniseries from the time the story takes place. The story feels like King, too, which was the obvious intent (the series' title smacks of "Needful Things" and one of the episodes is called "The Body": the basis for "Stand by Me"), but as publicity declares, the adventure also contains elements of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, and (I might add) a heaping of Tobe Hooper, Richard Matheson, and Joe Dante (if one considers "Explorers"). I'll even go so far as to say it exudes elements of William Johnstone, Ruby Jean Jensen and Dean Koontz (when Koontz was in his Owen West phase), and if Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" had gone more the "Twilight Zone"/"Outer Limits" route, it may have come across rather like "Stranger Things".

Okay, with all that said, what's the story about?

Well, it takes place in '83 Indiana, after a 12-year-old named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears: i.e., is seized by a mysterious entity on his way home from playing Dungeons and Dragons. 

His mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), is worried sick, while his friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard; their sensitive leader), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) plunge into their own search for their buddy, abetted by a lost, enigmatic, psychokinetic gal named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), or El for short, inspired by the numeral tattooed on her arm. She’s actually an escapee from a government unit run by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who helms otherworldly experiments for evident Cold War purposes.

Will's big brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), also leaps into the mystery, though he faces opposition from a bully gang run by Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), who just so happens to be dating Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), for whom Jonathan holds a crush. Yeah, the overlap sounds complicated, but trust me, it plays smoother than you'd expect. 

The yarn’s overriding hero (and I doubt many would dispute my claim) is Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who after the loss of his daughter, has succumbed to drugs and alcohol, but Will's disappearance revitalizes his mettle. He teams with Joyce, and the two uncover Brenner's weird activities, plus (SPOILER) the fact that Will is kept by an alternate-dimensional creature, right behind the very walls of his home. 

There are plenty of "E.T."-inspired bicycle scenes throughout the saga; and even Mike's relationship with El reminds one of E.T. and Elliot. The creepy creature effects invoke Carpenter/Rob Bottin's "The Thing", with the story's behind-the-wall ("upside down" world) motif coming right out of "Poltergeist" and "Little Girl Lost".

In other ways, "Stranger Things" is similar to "Star Wars": a hodgepodge of many things to become its own thing. However, thanks to the clever Duffers (who also wrote and directed several of the chapters), the series never feels cliched and whenever it turns familiar, it comes across like an old friend and not a rip-off. 

The series' accolades have already given Season 2 a green light (and the ending implies a continuation); to supplement this good fortune, "Stranger Things" (along with the likes of "Daredevil"; "Jessica Jones" and "Pee-wee's Big Holiday") solidifies Netflix as an entertainment supplier with destined longevity. While HBO and its tired imitators hold their pompous court, "Stranger Things" has swiped the Crown of Quality from them. Before long, this series (along with the others) will set a new, cool groove of imaginative escapism for viewers. Netflix and the Duffer Brothers ought to be damn proud, and we subscribers, damn grateful for their intuitive efforts. 

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