Sunday, 11 September 2016

Review: Stranger Things

by Ellie Williams-Brown

Stranger Things hit Netflix in July with relatively little hype. But in only two short months it has become the most popular digital online series. Every second seems to be a reference to one eighties film or another, and yet, the storyline and the characters may feel familiar but also original. It is surprisingly compelling watching a series - or anything - where it is not necessary to watch previous films in the same universe to understand everything. Although all Hollywood seems to be doing is pumping out trashy sequels, the popularity of Stranger Things shows how it is still possible to reference and create a nostalgic feel whilst also being original, and people will want to watch it.

Looking at the box office at any point during 2016 you are bound to see at least one or two sequels at your local cinema. Then again, it’s hardly surprising, when four out of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide this year are sequels. One is a remake of a classic film, and two occur in the same universe where there already is a multitude of sequels, and the films themselves will generate further sequels. Marvel and DC are both known for their extended sequels, spanning across many films, but it’s not just these two film behemoths who are banking on the guaranteed success of sequels. This year alone an unprecedented 37 sequels will be released by major film networks. This is because the average sequel will make eight times the revenue of the original release, but the critical acclaim will drop, even as the earnings skyrocket. As Roger Ebert, an acclaimed American film critic, famously stated, “No movie executive has ever been fired for green lighting a sequel.” However, Ebert, like many critics laments the glut of sequels, criticising them for “betraying a lack of imagination and originality.”

Another weapon of nostalgia Hollywood uses against us, is intertextuality. This is something in a text, which was shaped by another text; it is inescapable and as old as storytelling is itself. It is even how language works - as all language reaches back and is informed by how it was used previously. Intertextuality is not bad by default, but it is currently at its worst being used mostly as a substitute for actual plot and character development. When done right, it can add to the drama, all whilst still being exciting, funny, and occasionally amusingly subversive. However, it has been almost weaponised so that objects, people or situations are only there to trigger an emotional response. It is being used as a substitute for drama and plot - as seen in the Hobbit Trilogy where Sauron was included, without being anywhere in the original book. Going back to DC, this problem can also be observed; their characters are so legendary and ingrained into the minds of our pop culture that they offer up the quintessential intertextual character. But watching the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice you can see how simply having the frisson of these two characters fighting, does not substitute a thought provoking, strong drama, leaving us with a collection of unsatisfying films with a wasted premise.

This is where Stranger Things is different. Everything about Stranger Things stirs up a sense of nostalgia, down to its title sequence based on text fonts from Stephen King novels, it is meant to make us feel emotional and remember past movies. The first shot is a mirror of ET, which it continually references throughout its far too short eight episode series. In fact, it is referenced so much that in a specific scene which does not mirror ET, the audience feels shocked, but satisfied. The show is a love letter to the 80s, and it doesn’t feel like one - it is art rather than imitation. Just look at The Artist, which was released in 2011, has received 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was made as a love letter to the silent film era by Director Michel Hazanavicius, as many filmmakers he admired had emerged in this era. Watching this film you can see this, and still enjoy the film but it does not feel as if you are watching an original silent movie - although this does not necessarily detract from the poignancy of the film. But here is where, once again, Stranger Things changes the game, as it captures the feeling of watching an 80s film. In other words, this could have been made in the 80s and it would feel no different to watch it. It plays on all the emotions of love, childhood fear and wonder that are brought out by references but does not rely on them. There is a plot underpinning everything and connecting these moments together, instead of the other way round, leaving a very fulfilling and satisfying story and characters. 

Now, I’m not claiming Stranger Things is perfect. It has some plot flaws, the writing is occasionally on the nose and it sometimes does exist solely on tropes, but these strengthen rather than weaken the show. Yes, there are a group of normal children having encounters with the strange and supernatural, like in many other films and series, but the acting the Duffer brothers (the directors) elicit from these children is astounding resulting in some of the most convincing portrayals of children, aided by their realistic character traits and reactions to situations. You end up caring about what happens to them, and not caring that it is clich├Ęd. This is where other filmmakers need to pay attention to how the Duffer brothers make the references and homages work by using them to enhance the plot - rather than the plot relying on them. 

This show was a risk to make and had to fight hard to be allowed to be made after being rejected between 15-20 times. Even then it was made on a relatively low budget, but the risk Netflix took on this show paid off. Hopefully the critical and commercial success with Stranger Things will allow other major networks and film studios to realise that intertextuality can be done well in addition to the plot, making the film fulfilling by not relying on it. The best legacy for Stranger Things would be that studios realise they need to take more risks on original ideas, instead of churning out sequels with a guaranteed revenue.

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