Life is purposefully represented towards us in episodes where every little hour of drama ends with a note: it can either be a list of things in store, or a mere script that you need to read to perform at the next turn of things. Things, things that surround us and things that emerge from the darkness – layers of time notwithstanding, presented in front of us. At times, the uncertainty of this presentation is downright creepy. Implemented in its own weird way, the chaos, or maybe the lack of it throws us off our illuminated way. Our sluggish brain in overdrive, our dull wit at its fag end, our dictionaries not helping, we stare at those things.
A series created by the Duffer Brothers in a 80s setting that screams E.T., Stranger Things was on my watch list for a while – all the while I was contemplating between watching Mad Men and Mr. Robot (Season 2). But I set my priorities and started with it last week, giving myself enough time between episodes (8 in total) to let everything sink in. The reason I don’t necessarily binge watch (with the exception of Marvel’s Daredevil, and possibly Dexter) is that I allow my brain to process all the information that is thrown at me, and formulate my own conclusions, own ideas at a progressing storyline and lastly and guess what’s in store in the next episode.
Let’s strip the 80’s vibe off it and dive deep at the core.
The Hawkins neighborhood is in a way, a lot like the remote villages in India. Tired of waiting for the civilization train to arrive, these little pockets have developed their own way of life; something that is not as frenzied as the one in the concrete jungle. Life at school is devoid of smartphones and comprises of real, face-to-face connections. The battered Sheriff is a shadow of his former self, but even that self is nothing to speak of. The single mother, the callous family comprising of a overprotective mother, a never-there yet always on the table father, a young girl on the verge of choosing between her heart or her primal instincts and a boy who spends his time creating Dungeons and Dragons campaigns with three of his compatriots are spitting images of places that still exist, albeit without the dryness of the Indiana sun replaced by a humid subcontinent weather. It doesn’t take much to rattle such an easygoing bunch.
Shock is aplenty is today’s culture – so much so that we have stopped appreciating the normalcy that lies in all of us. From Kanye West’s bizarre renditions of popular hip-hop to Carbon Based Lifeform’s hypnosis of post-modern rock/ambient soundforms, to Fifty Shades of Grey’s incredibly vivid story of a BDSM-obsessed man, to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s colorful reimagining of Michael Keaton as a self-destroying mortal superhero draped in a human costume a.k.a ‘Birdman’ – the society is already knee deep into waters that is continuously being electrified. But this society is a connected one. Ripples felt somewhere ultimately make their way another shore. The island of Hawkins doesn’t have that luxury, so it imagines itself in cavedrawings-esque cuts of old newspapers, and rock music that has somehow trickled down with the changing weather.
The strong undercurrent of a government that is against us is present here as well, but it doesn’t derail the story into a propaganda-ish ‘They’re hiding everything from us’ level mediocrity. It rather evolves into those sudden tickles in your spine, feeding into the entire MKUltra conspiracy theory, leaving one wondering if we can ever find out the full extent of the Cold War and beyond. Not divulging into any political angles, Stranger Things remains lean and not boring. Mathew Modine plays the doctor well, though his portrayal is not beyond the storied cliches we are all accustomed to. It doesn’t become a sore for the eyes because his role is well-timed and limited to very few dialogues. Again, not getting into the technicalities of what is going on in that restricted facility lets the mystery spread nicely. Slaves of being spoonfed oversimplified stories, this brings a breath of fresh air.
What about communicating with your mind? Millie Bobbie Brown is terrific as Eleven, or fondly called Elle, and shows shades of Gene Gray (I couldn’t help but draw the similarities) in her earlier years. Emotions in a kid of her age are primal, and she flawlessly shows them in screen. The blackout scenes are a standout, reminding me often of Scarlett Johansson’s Under the Skin scenes, though at a much more creatively different way. Interestingly, the powers are introduced first with fear, then playfully, and again with a nauseating sensation of fear.
We never get to understand the absurdities of parallel universes, introduced in a comicbook manner by series like The Flash, though maybe that is reserved for future seasons. The parallel universe in Stranger Things is vicious, and is haunted by a creature that feeds on fear. The strange feeling (no pun intended!) that the splitting walls and the portals to the hellish, darker version of Hawkins may only be the manifestation of a deranged is overwhelming. Ultimately we all are prisoners of our mind and our own creations, however away from the norm that is. The gurgling, belching screams of the slimy Demogorgon is frightening, because not all corners of the mind is ever explored.
Of the hapless bunch, the kid with a lisp clearly is in a league of his own, though Finn Wolfhard’s Mike is adorable. His discovery of love gives the series its necessary tug at the heartstrings, which I surprisingly didn’t find much in Winona Ryder’s returning performance. She cries and screams through what I would call a moderate performance, but somehow misses the point altogether. That is why the climax feels a tad drab, though saved for the most part by Millie and Finn and friends. Away from this yet closely intertwined, another love story and adolescent exploration of minds and bodies bloom. Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer are stars of this drama, though Charlie’s character stands out – his shy, socially awkward yet slightly obsessive teenager feels closer to reality. Natalia is excellent, but again, like quite a few other characters in Stranger Things, her presence is probably a filler – a sort of cinematic antidote to the absence of any strong older female characters (apart from Eleven) in the series. David Harbour as the Sheriff is superb as well, bringing the right amount of action mixed with dry humor and heartbreak. His character is easily one of the strongest points. I cannot but think that somehow all the mature minds portrayed in this series are somehow hollow shells around a crumbling core.
The story is mainly focused on the bunch of teens and schoolkids with a supernatural angle thrown in, so the biggest challenge presented to the creators should have been the setting. Letting the story unfold in a city would require an urbane polish, something that carries a whole lot of baggage. A city is also less forgiving to stories of unnatural. This is where Stranger Things succeeds. The visuals are a mixture of in the middle of nowhere town mediocre to the scene of a room filled with twinkling lights breathtaking, and that topsy-turvy ride is equally complemented by Stranger Things’ lovely, ode-to-the-80s soundtrack. A visuo-aural treat, nonetheless.
Is Stranger Things a revolution? No, not even close. But it never wants to be out of everybody’s league. It plays with simpler emotions, and builds atop them. In a way, Stranger Things is simpler things, mundane things woven into a Brothers Grimm tale of darkness. It may not jab at you from the get go, but for viewers who love their story slow-cooked to perfection, it is the best four-course meal available now.
(Images taken from different sources in the internet : Reddit, CreativeBloq)