The Upside Down

Another day, another Netflix original series. I know I'm a bit late to this one, but I blame the holidays and vacations! First, the Pajiba perspective. Pajiba's review mentions that this series isn't for everyone - you need to have some love/nostalgia for films from the 80's because this thing doesn't just feel like an homage to the films of the 80's, it feels like a film of the 80's, from the acting to the cinematography to the soundtrack. And that title card!



So people without a love of those types of films may not appreciate Stranger Things Luckily, I'm a total 80's kid. Born in 1986, I grew up watching 80's films and television shows. Even though I was four when I saw the decade out, an introduction to horror films via Scream in 1997 created an intense love of Carpenter's reign in the 70's and 80's. Rosemadder in the late 90's led to a tense bout of affection for Stephen King that is still going strong, almost 20 years later. Which is great news because Stranger Things, as Rowles mentions in his review, is basically E.T plus The Thing + Firestarter, thrown in a blender with a dash of Poltergeist. And since I love those four things deeply (the book version of Firestarter only, movie sucks), this is perfect for me. For more completeness, RS looks at everything the show borrows from. It's extensive.

In college, I took a Popular Culture class and ended up writing a paper on Jurassic Park. I compared the book and the movie versions of the story and my thesis was, basically, that Spielberg made things more family-oriented. And he does this a lot. And as the homage of all homages, Stranger Things does this with aplomb, from the manic Winona Ryder character (and how great is it to see her again, while Johnny Depp continues to burrow down into depravity and general yucky-ness) to the cool Mom Wheeler (if you spent the first episode wondering who she was, she played the only woman to really take on Don romantically in Mad Men). Even Eleven, there's the drama of her mom's fight with the lab and her 'Papa.' Basically, Mom's are awesome. The only decent Dad in the bunch if Hopper, and his kid died of cancer. Like Jurassic Park or E.T., there's an undercurrent of familial drama. Sure, there's telekinesis and dinosaurs and aliens, but at the end of the day it's all about a mom's love of her son.

To be honest, I have several complaints about the series. First, the inconsistencies with the organization's terribleness. They murder Benny for seeing Eleven (seriously, they could just pretend to be protective services and take her into custody), but they let Hopper off when he SEES THE LAB? C'mon. Also, Eleven's powers. She can flip over a truck and I guess kill a bunch of people, but crunching a Coke can was really a struggle for her. There's an old adage that people can make one big leap in movies. We made our big leap with Eleven and the Demogorg. Everything else should be consistent. How many days was Will in the Upside Down? Forget about the toxicity of the atmosphere, what about food and water? And, as for the toxicity, how is Nancy doing? Does she also have worm guys?

Slate had a good criticism (that I can't find now, sorry): the show tries to put up all the themes to 80's movies in - the nerdy kids (Stand By MeGoonies) who fight adults/bully teens; the horny teenagers trying to rebel against anything (Nightmare on Elm Street, every John Hughes movie), and finally, the distraught parents who remember these other stages but just want what's best for their kids. And while we have room for all these points of view (we have eight hours whereas Carpenter and Spielberg only had two), it's too all over the place. Give Nancy an entire episode. Devote a chapter to the parents. Instead, each episode checks in with each coterie and we're constantly being pulled in different directions. Should we think Mrs. Wheeler is a stick in the mud or just a scared mom? Is Mike just an annoying kid brother or is he our hero?

To a certain extent, Steve gets to be the hero. And yes, Slate, as you mentioned, it would have been nice to have Nancy save herself. But she gets the white knight treatment and her knight choices aren't great - the creepy kid who sneaks naked pictures of her or the bully who called her a slut? She ends up with the latter and, honestly, he was the better white knight. Of the teenagers, Steve is the only one who has an arc, abandoning his friends and facing his fears. Nancy and Johnathan team up together but ultimately end up back where they started. So, sure, end up with Steve, who cleans up the movie theater and gets some balls.

And I hope Eleven comes back for season two. We have so much more to learn about her.  The actress who plays her is excellent. She's more interesting than all the boys by far (I can always just watch Stand By Me again, guys, for the male pre-teen angst).

As far as villains go, we get the gambit, from thugs in suits, thugs in backpacks, thugs with beer, and thugs who eat people. For next season, let's focus on one. That's what I hope for season two - a better focus and more strong women - Eleven, Winona, and maybe even Nancy..

The final shot of the first season is that of a not-so-happy family. Like any great Spielbergian adventure, the focus is on the familial unit, but this one is far from perfect. Can't wait to continue their saga.