Stranger Things 2 (a short study)
2016/17 ‧ Sci-fi Web/Television Series ‧ 2 Seasons ‧ Created by the Duffer Brothers
Tenderly Outré - Arsentiy Novak (FR)
Before submerging into this review, I am obliged to justify myself as to why I am doing so in the first place. This is a film blog after all. My vindication lies within the queer nature of the show itself; its very substance is a eulogy to film. A multitude of 80s sci-fi / horror flicks to be precise, each one carefully implanted within a carefully constructed storyline, characterisation and cinematography. Now this is least of all a condemnation, as ‘Stranger Things’ never attempts a crude imitation of the genre, rather it creates a pastiche of the most salient elements into an exquisite piece of art. In doing so it, paradoxically, ties wedlock with originality, never once faltering from its course of masterful storytelling. In this review I shall attempt to shed light on some of the elements in Season Two which make this series so undeniably special.
Upon its debut, ‘Stranger Things’ instantaneously became a hit. Many saw it as a sugarcoated portion of nostalgia, others as a salad of genres mashed together. In either case it was happily devoured. I shan’t go by the satirical ‘member-berry’ road that ‘South Park’ has wittingly explored, but rather excavate how ‘Stranger Things’ escapes the usual pathos of reminiscence. It does not cherry-pick. Despite the take-off 80s style, it does not wink at its audience, as though to say “you 'member?” On the contrary, it respects us enough to assume that we understand the referential aesthetic and spirit of the show, and with this it takes upon itself all the elements of the genre(s); whether it be fashion, pop-culture, music, stereotype, or film-style. Doubtlessly, it is a mark of genius from the Duffer Brothers, to seamlessly combine that which we think we know about 80s cinema, what we choose to forget, and shallow, nostalgia-infused preconceptions of a series, into something one would never expect. An exhilarating story. Why? Because it is not concerned with appeasing us. Once we are reminded of the rules - they are broken. Never has this been clearer than in its second season.
It begins almost a year since the events of Season One. Our favourites have changed; characters have grown, relationships altered, and most importantly their shared history isolates them from the unsuspecting public. The Duffer Brothers use this with superlative skill to progress their tale: they build on the existing strings to create a web of connections between the individual characters, some utterly unexpected. Fearlessly they sever some too, to liberate themselves from a formulaic approach. Who could have foreseen the complex father-daughter dynamic between Hopper and Eleven (superseding even the likes of Logan and X-23); the camaraderie of Dustin and Steve; the agape love infused liaison of Bob and Joyce. It stands a plain sight: Season Two is not afraid of experimentation. It does not submit to the studio’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, preferring reinvention instead. The writing for Joe Keery’s work is an ecliptic example, for it manages a complete metamorphosis of Steve Harrington. From a self-obsessed narcissist, he transforms into a valiant Jamie Lannister of ‘Stranger Things.’ This is ever more impressive considering Keery had two seasons to do the job. Charlie Heaton too, deserves no less praise. Albeit much less radical the change, Jonathan undergoes the character-journey-treatment with the same diligence. In a performance that is both nuanced and heart-wrenching, Heaton painstakingly rips away the shackles from poor Jonathan, and with it any doubt as to his character arch. His chemistry with Natalia Dyer’s Nancy has been undeniable since Season One, yet it takes a true artist to understand the value of repression until the story brings you to a climax. The Upside-Down too is not forgotten. Instead of leaving it simply as the Hyde to our world’s Jekyll, it is expanded into a very substantial, corporeal labyrinth under our feet, cleverly paralleled by the tapeworm in Will’s head. No longer is the nightmare viewed through an opaque window; the danger this time is much more immediate, and whatever veil is left grows more transparent with each episode. With the growing maturity of our protagonists, so too rises the maturity of the nightmare. This time round, it lies not in the disappearance of a child, but in the mutation of a child into a monster. These who have had the privilege of finishing this season will understand me when I say that the ‘radiator exorcism’ scene was one to make the skin crawl even in the most seasoned of horror veterans.
Nevertheless the core element is ever-present. Relationships. A few have already been outlined, yet it is the romance that takes precedence this season. Through the introduction of Max, the Duffer Brothers throw a wild-card into the boys’ friendship, forcing it to a test. With both Lucas and Dustin in competition, it makes for a very entertaining watch, adding to the lighthearted and coming-of-age component of the drama. Sean Austin, in turn, brings a beautiful naivety into Hawkins’ established world, finding harmony between Bob’s doofus image and pragmatic intellect, perfectly complimenting Winona Ryder’s Joyce. However most inventive of all has to be Dustin’s relationship with D’art. The latter, shortened from D’Artagnan, is very much a bizzaro version of the classical hero. He too at first is callow and naive, trying to find his feet in a new alien world. Born of a different place, it is only with the loving care of Dustin ‘de Tréville' Henderson that he is able to harness his abilities to their full extent, and just as the young musketeer, D’art also becomes a key figure in the course of events to come, proving much more dangerous than expected. A peculiar comparison may be drawn between both Dustin and Bob, for both are sufferers of unconditional love towards their ‘significant others,’ chasing mortal danger instead of comfort.
What Season Two thrives on is unpredictability. You may never know where it will take you and you long to find out. Something incomprehensible is its dominance in both the everyday life of Hawkins and its darker counterpart. Our interest is taught wherever the events take place. Aside from the Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy and Andrew Stanton manage to touch upon this, with exquisite episodes ‘Will the Wise’ and ‘The Spy’ respectively. Time is taken to weave the audience into the story, lead you through the maze of fragments of each diverging character path, and then bring it all together with a singular eureka moment. A marvellous example is Will’s tunnel-drawings, or the morse-code deception of the Shadow Monster. Writing to one side, however, it is the performances that serve as incitement for the constantly changeable turns of the show. A stand-out for this season is Noah Schnapp. Almost inconceivably for an actor of his age, he delivers a performance that is both powerhouse and unreservedly pure, completely eclipsing these around him in many of the scenes. Yet almost all the others hold themselves to the same standard. In a wonderfully crafted scene at the kitchen table, where nearly all the characters stand together to decide the plan of action, one can very clearly see the talents on hand. From the cynically reserved Chief Hopper; the distraught and turbulent Joyce Byers; a timid but decisive Nancy Wheeler; to the zanni Dustin Henderson, we are treated to characters which are played to the absolute perfection by actors who fulfil their duty to the utmost. At its most spectacular instances we are gifted gold dust, such as when Dustin attempts to explain to Hopper the ins-and-outs of killing a ‘Mindflayer,’ whilst Steve attempts to butt in with “…like the Germans” to impress Nancy. Or when Murray Bauman acts as a counselor to Jonathan, before asking about the "pull-out…sofa” during breakfast. The meat of course, is in the writing, yet it is only brought to life by the artists who know how to do their job. And the beauty is that we may never predict what will happen next.
The golden rule of any horror is that the demonic force acts only as a catalyst towards progression of character, and Stranger Things understands this very well. There is of course a healthy dose of fiendlike nightmares, yet it is the tangible, human aspect of the show that stays within our hearts and makes us scream for more. Eleven’s loyalty. Joyce’s fierceness in face of desperation. Hopper’s honour. Steve’s selflessness. I fear I am merely scratching the surface, however hope it is enough to make you realise how beautiful Duffer Brothers’ creation really is. The care that is taken to study each and every moment as an unbiased expedition, lets the writers present to us real people. Individuals we care for, that we feel close to. Well, for the most part. There is unfortunately a bastard episode, in which an utterly unneeded and poorly executed storyline taken place; that of Eleven’s ‘Lost Sister.’ Aside from the dreadful character of Eight, we are handed an unfinished version of Eleven’s backstory, quite unworthy to my mind. Who ever thought it a good idea, that in order to flesh out Eleven’s past, she ought to be transported to a punk Ocean’s Eleven? Instead of a single-malt character study episode, we taste a blended mix of Carrie-esque teenage rebellion and a plagiarism of X-Men. There’s even a shot-for-shot telekinesis scene, stolen from First Class. Billy too unfortunately lacks depth. Joining the cast in Season Two as Max’s internally-vile older brother, Dacre Montgomery brings both flamboyancy and danger to the character, but finds it difficult to escape the rather one-sided archetype that is imposed onto him by the writing. Montgomery deserves praise in realising this, for he pushed the Duffer Brothers to write in an extra scene with Billy and his father. It humanised his character and added weight to his outward persona, offering a rare glimpse into a different side of Billy the bully. It should not be the case, however, that an actor must beg for this this to happen.
Now a few words about cinematography. It is mesmerising. Tim Ives and Tod Campbell return once again to capture the stunning, vibrant, psychedelic colours of the world, whilst simultaneously crafting a love-letter to the 80s. The images are soft in tone and feel personal to us, but there is also an otherworldliness to them, as though we are watching the contents of a dream. Tarkovsky’s shadow is almost overbearing in some; the camera moves with such poise, such grace that it becomes difficult to concentrate on the discoveries at hand. The work of David Fincher is also evident, with beautifully clean, sweeping shots to tempt our eye and confuse; we can never guess that there is someone behind the camera. Omniscient. For this season, Ives upgrades to the Red Weapon 8K S35 camera, from the 6K Red Scarlet Dragon, once again utilising the Leica lens. The change is not significant, and one would find it difficult to pinpoint where exactly the visual aesthetic evolves, nonetheless it does. It is as though the signature style has been grasped in full by now, wielded with absolute conviction and then pushed further than usually permitted. Not experimental, but rather confidently playful. Because there is such harmony between the story and the way its told, both Ives and Campbell seem to attempt to push the visual experience further and further to compete with the story elements themselves. The results speak for themselves.
We are offered a show of incomparable execution, in every sense of the it. A marvellous gift to both the audience and cinema itself, which indubitably shall ascertain itself with that peculiar and beautiful veil going by the name of ‘classic.’