The Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross) have worked their way out of obscurity and onto the payroll of Netflix with their new suspense series Stranger Things. Like most Netflix shows, the Brothers suddenly popped up overnight on the radar of all of the Western world without much pre-emptive fanfare. Their show is an eight-episode thriller-drama with a penchant for suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud.
In reality, what this show feels like is a couple of boys doing their best to pull together every film that they loved as children and mash them all up into their own personalized mega reel. But isn’t that what all of us are doing, simply finding what we love most and attempting to make it our own? Whether or not you think that the Duffer Brothers were successful in creating a unique work, they glued together enough hat tips, homages, and thrills to create eight episodes of TV.
The show is a tale of kidnapping in an ‘80s world where the government has tapped into a supernatural dimension as a result of Project MKUltra: a controversial, real-world program wherein the CIA dabbled in torture and drug use in an attempt to, among other things, control the minds of unwitting human subjects. The grotesque details of MKUltra were largely unimportant to Stranger Trails, but a narrative of criticism was created towards the program and by extension towards small “g” government. Due to the twisted experimentation of the department a breach was made between the “Upside Down” and the real world which released a proverbial kraken.
The vilification and mystery of the government agency in Stranger Things comes straight out of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., with stoic men in hazmat suits carrying out clinical, yet evil-looking procedures. However, the bastardization of the powers that be does not feel like an expressly political or libertarian statement, but instead like a reflection of the way that a child is afraid of the government and law enforcement, only because it is an unknown entity that has the power to get them into trouble.
This take on the government makes sense in line with the fact that the cast is largely made up of child actors. In an article they penned for Entertainment Weekly, the Duffer Brothers specify that they interviewed 906 boys and 307 girls in order to avoid the repercussions of bad child actors. It seems that their efforts paid off as the children they casted were exceptional at creating a gateway in which an adult audience can access the nostalgia and whimsy of their childhood years without getting hung up on the sometimes cute but often annoying attitudes and behaviours that come along with young children. Rather than have the establishment take care of the interdimensional monster, the mother and father figures of the film become responsible for the eradication of the monster, the exact way a child would imagine it to happen.
The homage to classic films doesn’t end with E.T.’s childlike viewpoint. The Brothers also call back to Spielberg’s signature steady, one-shot masters: the lighting and cinematography of Alien, and the energy of Super 8. Some characters feel like they are from True Detective and even Twin Peaks.
In addition to recalling the past, the series also stays relevant to contemporary cultural values. Women, and especially mothers, are allowed to overpower the males in the film, and even hold more important roles than their male counterparts. One of the more important female characters in the story has visible acne but, contrary to traditional narratives, is presented as a valued and beautiful character nonetheless. Even in regards to mental health and stereotypical high school social roles, the show manages to sidestep cliché and create a casual yet inclusive story.
The show has its fair share of issues as well, though. Sometimes characters fall flat, other times parents don’t realize an unfamiliar small child is living in their basement for days at a time. The way the plot is resolved at times feels like a giant metaphorical crane is stationed nearby which can lower in the solution like a god in the sky. But each of these mistakes are also found in previous sci-fi films, raising the question of whether or not the Duffer Brothers are using these devices to further emulate the classics that influenced them.
Though the series is nearly eight hours long, it plays exactly like a film. If you plan to watch it, prepare one solid block of time to finish it all in one sitting. The Duffer Brothers created the series to progress like a novel, one chapter at a time. However, they created the type of novel that’s impossible to put down. The show is not scary per say, but the suspense of the story is palpable. You can literally pick up the gooey, slimy suspense of the story with your hands and watch it ooze through your fingers unnervingly. Watch it at night; to view a suspense film in broad daylight is a shame.
Stranger Things doesn’t have too much in the way of outright laughter or comedy, but be patient for gems like “Honey, we have to trust them, okay? This is our government” that come from dopey dads doing their best to stay in line.
Don’t expect total satisfaction at the end of the series though, as a second season does seem to be in the works. Most of the important questions and issues are resolved, but in an almost Marvel-esque manner a pre-credits scene rolls, raising a whole new set of questions. In an interview with Variety Magazine, the Duffer Brothers spoke about how they created a 30-page document that fully outlines the rules and characters of the “Upside Down” (their alternate underworld dimension) and plan to further explain the dimension in coming seasons. But if you are a fan of bokeh-blurred Jaws posters in the background, perfectly executed nostalgia, and suspense that will bring you to your feet without realizing it, don’t wait for a second season.