Saturday, June 15, 2024

Stranger Things Starts Off Weird and Wonderful

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A few weeks ago Netflix dropped its newest original series: Stranger Things, a straight-up ode to, amongst other things, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and the 80s. I’ve heard people describe it as The Goonies meets The X-Files, and I can definitely see that. For me it has a serious E.T. vibe, combined with nostalgic throw-backs like JJ Abrams’ Super 8 (without the lens flares). No coincidence that one of those films is a Steven Spielberg classic and one was produced by him.

In case you can’t tell from that, Stranger Things is about a group of kids in the early 80s who encounter some weird, weird shit. There’s Will, Lucas, Mike, and Dustin, and we’re introduced to them as they play a 10-hour D&D campaign that it took Mike 2 weeks to create. Yeah, these boys are nerds. Major. Total. Nerds. But awww they’re so cute with their little 80s haircuts and their nerdy earnestness!

(l-r) Lucas, Dustin, Mike, and El. We’ll get to her in a minute.

“Chapter 1: The Disappearance of Will Byers” opens with a mysterious government research lab outside of Hawkins, IN. It’s 1983, and there are strange things afoot at the Circle K mysterious government research lab. A scientist is running from something, and he gets sucked out of the elevator and whoops. That’s it. We don’t know what it was, just that it was creepy and possibly gross.

We cut to the kids and their D&D campaign, which Mike’s mom cuts short since it’s a school night. The boys ride their bikes home, and on the way Will is startled when a large creature appears on the road in front of him. He wrecks his bike in the woods and runs home, where his dog is barking frantically. His mom and older brother aren’t home, and after a moment the chain on the door undoes itself.

Will runs outside to the shed to load a shotgun, and he’s standing ready to shoot when the monster thing appears behind him. Then they both disappear. Just vanish. Whoosh, gone, gun and all.

The next morning his mom (Winona Ryder) and brother discover he’s missing, and she’s able to get the local police chief in gear with some angry pleading. Much of the episode is taken up with fruitless searches and Winona’s crablike walk as she panics and melts down, but there is some good old fashioned government conspiracy nonsense.

Matthew Modine shows up at the research lab with a team. They’re looking for “it” and “the girl.” We’re shown a really…gross, kinda oozy nest-like thing stuck on the wall. It’s pulsing. We have no idea what this thing is, but all the government guys are wearing biohazard suits.

Meanwhile, a small child is wandering through the woods in a hospital gown. She sneaks into the back of a local cafe to steal some food, and the cafe owner catches her. At first he thinks she’s a boy, but then he realizes no, she’s a girl, but it’s kinda hard to tell since she’s like 10 and has no hair.

He makes her some food and tries to get some info out of her, but she doesn’t really talk. She does have “011” tattooed on the inside of her arm, and “Eleven” seems to be her only name. Oh also she can stop a squeaky fan from moving with her mind.

it was a REALLY annoying fan

The cafe owner calls social services, and that night a smiling blonde woman arrives. She shoots the cafe guy in the head, and some more men in suits bust in the back door. By the time the blonde woman gets there, the men are dead and the girl is gone.

The boys decide they have to go look for Will. He’s their best friend, and he would do the same thing for them. We’ve learned along the way that Will is a really good kid. He’s “weird,” and his father calls him homophobic names because he likes nerdy stuff, but he makes good grades, cares about his friends, and overall isn’t the type of kid to just flake out. His father isn’t in the picture and isn’t a super good guy, but his older brother Jonathan does his best to look out for Will and their mom.

It’s a dark and stormy night (no, seriously), and the boys are out in the woods near mysterious government research lab where Will crashed his bike. Suddenly a figure appears in front of them. They think it’s Will, but it’s Eleven. She’s soaked, obviously, so Mike takes her to his house until they can figure out who she is.

I uh really don’t remember exactly where the episode break happened. This is what happens when you watch things back-to-back…

Anyway, in “Chapter 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street,” we learn a little more about Eleven. Mike decides to call her “El.” She was a test subject of some sort at the mysterious government research lab, and sometimes they used to lock her in a closet. She calls Matthew Modine’s character “Papa,” though just from the brief look he doesn’t seem to have any special affection for her.

We also learn that the seemingly good-for-nothing police chief was a cop “in the city” (I assume Indianapolis) before his daughter died. He tells people she lives with her mother in the city, but tbh if I were him I wouldn’t want to spill the whole story about a dead kid either.

Winona Ryder starts getting mysterious phone calls. There’s odd grunting and heavy breathing, then a shock runs through the phone line and fries out the phone. She’s fried 2 phones this way so far, and I’m not sure how she’s gonna afford a third one since she had to get an advance on her salary to buy the second one. Oh also the wall does a weird pulsey throbby thing, a la Poltergeist.

Jonathan has a big crush on Mike’s older sister Nancy, who’s messing around with the school’s popular boy, Steve (Steve Holt!). Jonathan is in the woods taking pictures when he just happens to sneak up behind Steve’s house and start snapping shots of Nancy and Steve and his friends at a party. Nancy’s friend Barb accompanied her, but Nancy sends her home so she can get down with Steve. Barb retreats to the pool, and the cut on her hand drips blood into the water. A creature suddenly rises from the pool, and next thing we know Barb is gone. Whoosh. Just like Will.

RIP (or whatever), Barb. You deserved better, momfriend.

Jonathan is there with his camera the whole time, but he looks down at just the wrong (right?) moment, so he doesn’t see the creature. Just one sec Barb is there, next she’s gone. Jonathan doesn’t seem as nonplussed about it as he should, imo.

While Winona Ryder is at the store and Jonathan is out hunting down his good-for-nothing father, the government dudes show up at their house in full biohazard gear. They discover some nasty ooze stuff on the back wall of the shed where Will disappeared, and this is very important to Matthew Modine.

Back at Mike’s house, El convinces Mike not to tell his mom about her. She says (through signs; she still doesn’t talk much) that it would get her and his family all killed. Lucas is FREAKING OUT and wants to tell anyway, but El slams the door in his face (with her mind) and he changes his mind. They decide they have to take care of her, since she has super powers, and maybe she can help them find Will.

The episode ends with the kids’ science teacher (part of the search party) finding a ticket stub outside a drainpipe. We know the stub was Will’s, because there was a cute flashback scene to Winona Ryder presenting him with two tickets to Poltergeist. Anyway, the police chief shines his flashlight down the length of the pipe…and we see that it empties into mysterious government research lab. Dun dun DUN!!

Okay, teasing aside, I really liked these first two episodes. I haven’t watched any further yet, but I want to know what happens. What were they doing to El in the lab? What is this creature that took Will and Barb? Can they get them back??

I enjoy the 80s look, the desaturated colors and such, though I don’t think they would’ve had 911 service in 1983. Other than that, it seems pretty spot-on. The kids are great; I don’t think I’d care nearly as much about what’s happening if the main protagonists weren’t kids. It reminds me of watching movies like this when I was their age (The Goonies, E.T.) and wishing I could have big adventures, too.

Winona Ryder is the only part of this show that really annoys me. That’s weird, because I like Winona Ryder. I’d certainly never tell a mother how to act if her child disappears, but…I don’t know. She just kind of…has this weird hunched walk and scuttles around whining. Always. Whining. I think some of it might be the script; she hasn’t had that much to work with so far; but she’s making bizarre choices. It’s just…a grating performance from an actress I usually enjoy.

Please sit up straight.

Nancy told Barb to go home, so it might be a hot minute before anyone figures out she’s gone. That’ll put a whole new spin on the case, since she’s a 17-year-old girl, not an elementary school aged boy. I hope we don’t see Will’s dad again, because what a waste of space. Jonathan needs to de-creepify a little, because otherwise I like him a lot.

Basically, watch Stranger Things. It’s both very much like and very much unlike other things you’ve seen before. There are a lot of shout-outs, odes, etc, but they aren’t slavish; mostly homage-y. Which wasn’t a word before, as far as I know, but is now. Also, Stephen King digs it, and recognizes how much it owes to his work. A less scary It, perhaps?

images curtesy of Netflix

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