The term “Amblin-esque” is something we hear a lot of nowadays. Back in the day, Amblin Entertainment was the purveyor of all things awesome for both kids and adults. A slew of high-quality genre movies came out under its’ banner. from E.T the Extraterrestrial to The Goonies to Back to the Future, if it was cool and you saw it as a child, it probably came from Amblin. They were the standard bearers for quality, family oriented entertainment for a good long time.
As the children of the eighties have now grown to positions of prominence in the industry, more and more we see their cinematic and cultural touchstones reflected in the work that they produce. It makes sense, every generation of filmmakers are going to have points of reference and inspiration that is derived from what they experienced as a child. The eighties were particularly impactful and the pop-media of the time had an influence that reverberated for the better part of 20 years. Only the most recent generation, those born in the late nineties/early aughts, have really gotten away from its’ influence. Everything that was old seems new again to them and in that they are lucky, as the trend of the past 5 or 6 years has been referenced based, nostalgia-fueled storytelling, which would be all well and good if what we’ve been getting didn’t feel so shallow.
The most salient, high profile example I can come up with would be director/producer JJ Abrams. He’s made a few nostalgia-inducing ventures of the last few years, Episode VII and Super 8, the latter lining up more directly with what Stranger Things does. Both of those movies try so hard to look and feel like what they’re aping that they don’t really have an identity of their own. They aim to remind you of something you liked before, almost as if invoking those old ghosts takes the place of doing any sort of emotional heavy lifting in the piece itself. It all feels incredibly shallow and staid, like you’ve seen it before, only now it’s slightly different.
Stranger Things falls prey to the fandom of its’ creators. The Duffer Brothers clearly love the output of the eighties era. They love it so much, in fact, that almost every element of this show is a direct reference to something you’ve seen before. I mean, at times it borders on plagiarism. Well, okay, that’s being harsh, but it felt like not more than 5 minutes would pass before another reference. Whether it was a poster hanging on the wall, or a shot directly lifted from a classic, they just kept coming. It was unrelenting. It was distracting and it also exposes a lot of the story beats well before any of them actually happen. I could spend thousands and thousands of words pointing out every reference I spotted, but there are plenty of listicles out there that have already done that if you’re super interested.
I was never surprised by anything that happened in the story. I mean, that’s not inherently a bad thing. I don’t need to be shocked into liking something, but because I’m so familiar with everything that the shows wants to invoke, I was kind of bored throughout a lot of it. That fact was exacerbated by the odd pacing and lack of focus. There’s a lot of characters and sub-plots that get explored, but none of them feel all that satisfying by the end of the season. You don’t know anything more about the characters than you do after the first episode. Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic, but closer to the truth than 8 hours of programming should lend to. I mean, characters “change,” but often times it felt like it came out of left field. The “Asshole Boyfriend” seems like the most obvious example. One moment he’s a vicious bully and then moments later he’s making amends. That would be cool and all, redemption is an attractive arc, but the show up to that point had offered up no instances, not even a few emotional breadcrumbs, that would lead us to believe he was ready to “turn it all around.”
I often found the lack of focus to be mildly frustrating. There’re some really interesting concepts and characters in Stranger Things but, just like most things in this show, it never develops into anything compelling. It’s all just kind of there, for lack of a better way to put it. The static nature of all of the characters and plot devices leaves a lot to be desired. There’s very little organic feeling conflict, which felt weird because, given the subject matter, there should have been a lot. Shadowy governments, alternate dimensions, creatures, kids, adults… Yeah, I would imagine there would be some inherent conflict with all that stuff. Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
In the early goings of the series, I was thinking that maybe I was watching a character drama that was using genre trappings to draw us in. Then as I kept watching and deep characterizations didn’t manifest itself. So, I thought that maybe it was going to be more of an exploration of the concepts and plot. Nope, it doesn’t really do that either. I don’t know, it was weird. Nothing ever seemed to go anywhere.
There were some things I really enjoyed about the show and, ultimately, what kept me watching was the cast. Man, the main child actors have got to be some of the best casting I’ve seen in awhile. Every kid feels distinct and unique, without ever feeling overly precious. They feel like real kids and the chemistry that the young actors have with one another makes the friendships feel real. It’s The Goonies level of good casting. Honestly, the whole show, problems and all, is worth watching because of them.
The rest of the cast is also pretty good. There are no real weak links, well, maybe save for the older brother character. He always seemed a little flat, in my opinion. David Harbour, the sheriff – also, that guy that has bit parts in every movie, ever made – probably stands out the most, though. He actually has the most to work with dramatically, and feels the most well realized. Winona Ryder was a little underwhelming, but she’s not given much to work with beyond being exasperated.
There’s a lot of really nice, little character moments, too. Seriously, I haven’t been this frustrated with something in awhile. I felt like I was being tricked half of the time. As soon as I was about to give up and watch something else, I would get feed a little tidbit, a little interesting morsel that would suck me back in. It was able to do this because the moment to moment writing is actually pretty decent. I just wish it all added up to something interesting.
Even though I think Stranger Things leans too much on the stylings of other… things… I can’t say that the show doesn’t look good. Yeah, it lifts most of its’ aesthetic design and cinematography from other films, but they still had to pull it off, and most of the time they totally do. If anything, it’s a really good looking show.
I was really surprised by my reaction to Starnger Things. Given all the positive press surrounding it, I figured it was for me. Hell, it seems like I would be the target audience but, at the end of the day, I just felt like it pandered a little too hard. It lacks an identity and never rises above a decent facsimile of the movies and shows that the Duffer Brothers obviously love. It really blurs the line between homage and just plain old fashioned ripping off, often using imagery and shot compositions to manipulate our emotions by dredging up our feels about the original works.
Having said all that, it’s not a total waste of time. There are worse ways to spend 8 hours and I intend to give it another chance at some point. There’s definitely something about it that I find compelling. Maybe another look will reveal to me something more valuable. Maybe then I’ll get what everyone’s been raving about.