Thursday, November 2, 2017

STRANGER THINGS 2: First Impressions (SPOILERS GALORE)


After finishing STRANGER THINGS 2 last Saturday, there was so much on my mind that I immediately felt the urge to blog about why I liked this "Sequel" so much and why even Chapter Seven made sense to me. Fast forward to five days later: when I finally found the time, the urge may not be that strong anymore, but part of my mind still revels in that alternate universe the Duffer brothers have created. They are still first impressions as I have not gone back to any portion of the show for closer scrutiny - so don't expect any exploration of the pop songs that define the characters, the newly rich color schemes, the unobtrusive CGI, the cinematic editing rhythm or the strikingly consistent visual motifs.

I usually refrain from literal fan art. But if the show itself is some kind of fan "art", I guess it's ok...
Instead, the following is more of a shapeless rant about little (and lost) sisters and a surrogate father: 

I expected STRANGER THINGS 2 to be bigger and more expensive. What I did not expect was that this was actually a good thing. At times it felt like watching THE GODFATHER PART II of 1980s nostalgia films (in context and scope, not content or absolute cinematic quality): expanding in every direction with more characters, stronger arcs, definitely more horror thrills and even more heartbreaking, more cinematic, more elaborate flashback structure with now-memories, shared flashbacks and self-imposed telepathic seances. 

The Universe is Expanding 
The first substantial new character we meet is Madmax who is not only the new tough girl in town, a perceived security risk and the subject of a love triangle, her not really being part of "the party" also mirrors aspects of Eleven's role. Max, however, has a tougher stand since Eleven is still very much on Mike's and the audience's mind. Even though Madmax and her step-brother are not closely connected to either the saving-Will-quest or Eleven's coming-of-age story, they liven the place up considerably. And talking of little sisters: I knew immediately that there would be a "little-sister-Erica" meme the minute she appeared on the screen! Priah Ferguson as Lucas' little sister is a riot in every single scene she's in. Her calling Lucas (the most reasonable of the four friends) a nerd was only the first of several hilarious throwaways.

And suddenly, Mikey from THE GOONIES stumbles in, all grown up, chubby, listening to Kenny Rogers and going by the name of Bob Newby "Superbrain". Sean Astin is just perfectly cast as Winona Ryder's lovably awkward love interest. And while the Duffer brothers thankfully refuse to conveniently kill off any young lover in the two love triangles (though we really fear for jock-come-babysitter Steve a few times), Bob at least helped save the day before he was devoured by a demodog. Most interesting about those predators (actually developed from pollywogs) are their dog-like characteristics that obviously allow for a bond of trust between Dart and Dustin which means that unlike the JAWS-inspired Demogorgon of Season 1 they are not just mindless killing machines.

In fact, all the villains got more complex: the Upside-Down is now run by a bodiless "feeling", a shadow monster or Mindflayer (to stay within the D&D analogy) that controls those hive-minded demodogs. On the human side, the faceless secret government agents may still be the real scare, but Dr. Owens and his scientist colleagues are more ambiguous than we first thought. Besides, there is a hint that Papa Brenner is still around somewhere.

Beyond Pop References
In fact, binge-watching STRANGER THINGS 2 felt less like watching a movie than reading a Harry Potter novel - a sensation I had not experienced for years. Like Rowling's page-turners (and the many Stephen King stories it is partly based on), STRANGER THINGS is essentially a coming-of-age story in a horror-thriller format that made me drop my guard and suspend any disbelief completely right from the beginning. For me, the key to the show's giant success lies in the strength of the relationships and of course the immensely talented (and professional) actors that infuse those children with relatable emotions. Besides, missing sibling stories always draw me in.

I think STRANGER THINGS works so well because even though it lures you in by its obvious play on pop references and cinema tropes, the protagonists themselves don't seem to know any of that (at least no more than Elliott knows about Yoda in E.T., a template for season 1) and all the characters and relationships feel sincere. Thankfully, STRANGER THINGS never breaks the fourth wall. Even when Max mentions that the story Lucas just told her (essentially the plot of Season 1) sounded derivative and lacked originality, it taps into the whole conspiracy theory/lies theme instead of feeling like a meta-comment for laughs. We can absolutely see what she means and still feel the urge to yell at her that this was for real. Because – let's face it – the plot of STRANGER THINGS sometimes feels like it really could be from the 80s.

Chief Hopper
There are two main narrative strands in Season 2: Firstly, Will's attempts at reintegration, his infiltration by the Mindflayer and the party's mission to save Will, Hawkins and possibly the world. As the boys are not pitted against any external bullies, the tensions within the group are foregrounded and Mike struggles the most until Will confides in him after the Halloween vision. The other one is Eleven's slow path to a normal life and is fuelled by a strong desire (strongly shared by the audience) to reunite with Mike while in reality she is hidden from the "bad men" for almost a year. Eleven's story also discusses the overarching themes of "promise", "friends don't lie" and "mutual protection" most elaborately.

Both strands are linked by chief Jim Hopper who - after wearing Chief Brody's clothes and Indiana Jones's hat - takes on the John Carpenter-Kurt Russell role and graduates at the same time not only to surrogate father to Eleven but an admirable hero much stronger and complex than I had ever expected him to become after Season 1. Despite his shortcomings and overprotectiveness, Hopper may be the best father in Hawkins based on what we learn about the homelives of the other children.

So while the events around Will pulled the heartstrings - Noah Schnapp really rose to the occasion - the relationship between Eleven and Hopper provoked so many concurring emotions that by the time Eleven finally met her real mother for the first time in the masterfully directed Andrew-Stanton-episodes, I was actually wanting to follow her story more than the approaching demodogs in the lab.

My only Inktober drawing...
Chapter Seven
Of course, right from the initial precredits sequence I was looking for clues that connect the Chicago gang to Eleven's story. So while I was interested in how the story world could be opened up beyond Hawkins I also secretely hoped that we never left that microcosm. And when she got on the bus, it was all "no, no, no, don't do it." Yet, maybe this was exactly the reaction Chapter 7 was made to provoke. It didn't feel like a backdoor pilot to me (it would have, if I had watched the episodes one at a time), and if it was, I certainly would not want to see that show. But that is besides the point. That chapter is all about the road not taken, the Darth Vader that could resist the dark side. From that standpoint it made sense that it was the only one directed by Rebecca Thomas (whose ELECTRICK CHILDREN I now want to see) and had a different visual look.

After all, Eleven finds herself in an environment that remains stranger to her than Hawkins even after she found "friends" (I could very much relate to that part of it). The channel-your-anger-and-find-yourself-clich├ęs as well as the fashion-mag-punk caricatures aside, there was enough interesting material in that trip down the rabbit hole: STRANGER THINGS is so emotionally rewarding because all the characters at some point can share their emotional turmoil, fears and insecurities with someone. Yet, however Mike and Hopper love Eleven, they will never know what it was like to grow up as a lab rat with a father like Brenner. So I found it a relief that she could share those memories with someone with a similar background, even if Kali (Linnea Berthelsen succeeded in transforming a plot device into a real character) ultimately pursued a different agenda.

It is true that there could have been a way for Eleven to confront her childhood self-defence killings and put them into context of a revenge mission. But the most emotionally draining moment for me was Eleven's confrontation with Kali's Brenner projection. Before, Modine was just the onedimensional blond villain type, but here it actually struck me how confusing it must be to call someone like that Papa.

While some have argued that the block construction of Chapter 7 broke the notion of one 7.5-hour-movie, I think that exactly because the show is conceived as one long film (binge-watching is encouraged), "The Lost Sister" works as a side story. Besides, one of the joys of the long form is that structurally, it resembles novels more closely than three-act films. And side stories or even embedded stories that take up considerable portions of a book are not uncommon.

But I certainly agree that leaving the escalating tension in Hawkins suspended for more than 50 minutes seems to overspend the bow since it cannot match the intensity of the Andrew-Stanton-chapters. And of course, if you are only interested in what happens to the guys in the lab, then Chapter 7 is breaking the perfectly built pace considerably instead of just delaying the showdown for a bit too long.

Two things I might want to study more closely:
1) Although I am not really comfortable with the concept of having some episodes done by different directors if a show is so clearly designed as one consistent movie, I thought that Andrew Stanton's direction of chapters five and six was outstanding. Would be interesting to also look at the writing by Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Kate Trefry.
2) During STRANGER THINGS 2 I found proof for something that occured to me a few years ago while studying suspense techniques: the most thrilling moments that are usually credited to twists are not the twists or revelations themselves but the moment when the character on screen realizes the very thing we wanted to tell him so badly. This works if we know something for several hours before the character discovers it (the truth about Eleven's mother, Hopper having lost his daughter) as well as if we only learn about it minutes before the character finds it out. And STRANGER THINGS 2, like Harry Potter and most thrillers or comedies that lets us share more than one perspective seems to have an abundance of these "realizing moments".

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