Stranger Things (2016)

Though capably-acted & a cinephilic joy in nostalgia, Stranger Things majorly forgoes remix/pastiche homages for an upside-down of outright [easy] plagiarism of ~every ’80’s sci-fi x horror classic – (tragically) able to exploit/fool a young generation of ignorance to originality. 6.2/10.

Plot Synopsis: In a small Indiana town in 1983 — inspired by a time when tales of science fiction captivated audiences, Joyce Byers’ (Winona Ryder) 12-year-old son, Will, mysteriously goes missing. She launches a terrifying investigation into his disappearance with local authorities, but start to unravel a series of mysteries involving secret government experiments, unnerving supernatural forces, and a very unusual girl.

S1 – 7.5/10 / S2 – 9/10 / S3 – 4/10 / S4 – 5/10

CLC’s Best Stranger Things Episodes: 1. The Upside Down, 2. The Gate, 3. The Mind Flayer, 4. Suzie, Do You Copy?, 5. The Bathtub, 6. The Monster, 7. The Vanishing of Will Byers, 8. Trick or Treat, Freak, 9. The Spy, 10. The Flea and The Acrobat

*Season-by-Season Reviews*

Season 1 Review – 7.9/10

Hawkins, IN. 1983: We’re shown a laboratory wherein some unidentified creature is wreaking havoc on the attending staff, and nothing was the same. A sleeper hit by Netflix that somehow took over the nation and pop-culture to become one of their biggest hits, Stranger Things skyrocketed its child-actor cast to superstardom and did so by being a nostalgic love-letter to the ’80’s introducing most non-cinephiles to the magic sci-fi flicks of the time as objectively-gripping, transportive television – even though it borrows heavily from other sci-fi films and ideas instead of paving its own way.

The atmospherics and soundtrack. The 80’s setting and classic/old-world sci-fi feeling the show gives you is unmistakeable and nostalgic. It is truly reminiscent and feels like it’s straight out of a time capsule from the period where sci-fi was king and captivated audiences worldwide. That is a deservedly praise-able and respectable achievement for modern television, plus testament to the skill of the set designers, costume makers, directors, actors, and soundtrack heads for creating such a magnificent landscape of old-fashioned glory. The soundtrack. Stranger Things’ biggest selling point is clearyl its soundtrack and theme music that’s one of the best I’ve seen in a modern television show. The electronic/rock-filled synth ballads and drum kits are unbelievably good creating a unique aura and signature blend of tone that makes the show pop and stand out as unforgettable amongst its viewers. The effects are also good/sparingly used for a more realism-centric storyline that, although haunted by an intimidating (well-CGI’d) beast in the Demagorgon, blurs the lines between reality and imagination.

The characters in the show are also well-balanced and developed over the impressively-brisk and remarkably short 8-episode binge. The cast is strong and elevates previously-unknown kid actors to likely superstardom with careers sky-rocketing after this series like Finn Wolfhart and Millie Bobby Brown. Golden-Globe winner and famous actress Winona Ryder gives the most compelling and memorable performance in the show as the grief-stricken mother trying everything to get her son back, with perhaps the most memorable scene of the show when she is talking with Will through the lights. The kid group (that I’m just itching to call Losers’ Club since they are right out of Stephen King’s It) is rootable-for and hilarious as well, especially Dusty with all the jokes and pop culture references, making you really care and feel invested in them throughout their relatable, human-based journey of wanting to simply get their friend back.

The pacing and cinematography are also quite good, with quick cuts keeping you on the edge of your seat each frama and making for a thoroughly-bingeable, thrilling, well-laidout season of television constantly leading with questions like dangling carrots we’re dying to get the answers to like what’s the creature and who’s the girl? As the season goes on, the show just keeps weaving in an intricate web of mystery and fascinating storylines/developments with strong character development especially showcased by Hopper and Becky and plenty of twists and turns to keep you engaged. The season finale is also stunning giving us an epic conclusion to the mystery – for now, as it looks like there is plenty of meat left on the bone in this mystery with that slug cough-up leading to a possible S2.

All of this is great, but the show has one major detraction glaring at you like an extradimensional being: the originality. Stranger Things borrows HEAVILY from other media and filmmakers’ ideas/work. Just off the top of my head, they copied: The Demagorgon and sci-fi/horror combination from Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982), the time period and kids banding together to stop a supernatural monster from Stephen King’s It (1986), El’s controlling metal from Marvel’s Magneto (1963), the 80’s feeling and general tone/major ideas from Spielberg movies (specifically E.T. with even the bikes and color of the poster/cinematography, other dimensions and speaking through electronics from Poltergeist, etc).

While it does at least reference a good number of the works it borrows from, that still does not change the fact that the show is more of an imitation/amalgamation of others’ ideas than its own. After all, no one would try to argue an English paper discussing Shakespearean ideas with a few original analysis points is better than the Shakespeare work it’s analyzing, right? The same idea applies here, as Spielberg, Stephen King, Ridley Scott, and the others aforementioned deserve more credit for making the idea possible and putting it to screen than Stranger Things for taking credit with an inexperienced younger audience who probably haven’t even heard or watched any of these movies. Besides that, Hooper’s character can be off-putting at first, and colors are strangely washed out/sepia-ish. I wish the season was a little longer too as the characters are pretty well-developed during that time but could have been more with looks into their backstories and psyches.

Overall, Stranger Things is good television that has an old-world, classic sci-fi charm that transports you straight back to the 80’s. It masterfully blends elements from all its design heads to make a thrilling, captivating story that, although it copies almost all of its ideas from past works and thus doesn’t deserved to be heralded as all-time great or groundbreaking, makes for a bingeable series better than most other pop options right now.

Official CLC Score: 7.9/10

Season 2 Review – 9.2/10

Halloween 2017, Stranger Things Season 2. Those were two things on the mind of everyone going into this spooky season. Season 1 had left us grasping for more after an extremely well-crafted and addictive (yet admittedly derivative) sci-fi/horror saga. I went into S2 with high hopes that they would be breaking more original ground and deliver an even stronger season of higher-stakes storytelling that even may improve upon the original, a very common achievement in TV shows and especially Horror TV (Hannibal, Bates Motel, Walking Dead, etc. all had better 2nd seasons). I’m happy to say that Stranger Things not only succeeds at accomplishing more-original and high-stakes epic TV in its second season, but dramatically improves upon Season 1 in remarkable fashion! From the get-go, Season 2 is more fast-paced than Season 1, exemplified by the wild opening car chase scene. That scene also lays the groundwork for a whole host of mysteries and backstory revelations that are a tremendous thank-you answering one of my problems with Season 1: I wish the season was longer and developed the characters more with glimpses into their psyches/backstories. The revelation that Eleven is not alone and has relative mutants like 008 is awesome and exactly the type of story development I was looking for to spice up the canvas.

The cinematography in Stranger Things 2 is also markedly better and brighter with more vivid colors and phenomenal halloween settings/set pieces, solving yet another of my (more minor) problems with Season 1: the colors seemed a little washed out/sepia-ish. Especially with the portrayal of things like the Upside Down – taken to new levels in the farther-reaching Second Season, it is rendered breathtakingly with incredible CGI (that obviously resulted from a huge budget-upping by Netflix after S1’s success) in scenes like Will’s first season glimpse of the Upside Down Sky from the arcade and the first apperance of the spider-like Shadow Monster, plus Will’s confrontation of the Monster in Ep. 3 where it attacks him through tornadoes (the two WILDEST scenes in the show’s history). Incredible. Also, the biggest given and takeaway to bank on coming back in S2: The soundtrack is unbelievably good. There is even a wider variety of 80’s tracks spanning multiple genres including more Rock and some Disco to go along with the pure electronic. The humor is also even better this season with quirky, smart jokes that make the show feel fresh and light-hearted when it counts, but also not lose any of its seriousness and darkness overall as it paints this tale of horror and other-dimension-y creatures. The scene where they go to the arcade in Ep. 1 and have the exchange with the teen worker is downright hilarious, and Dustin’s jokes are even better this season.

This freshness and expansion happens on the character-level too with the inclusion of several new intriguing characters, as well as the return of the biggest wildcard: Will. Nearly absent for all of S1, we had barely gotten know. Will before his escapade in the Upside Down, and were on the edge of our seats to find out what happened to him there espeically after the cliffhanger where he spits up the slug. Noah Schnapp’s Will is not only good, his acting is PHENOMENAL. In fact, after seeing him carry the entire show this season with a layered and wide-ranging performance in everything from the innocent little boy gripped by darkness to full possession by an other-worldly dark entity, I would put his performance at the forefront of the show as its best one, even in front of Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers. That medical scene where he’s first telling the Doctor about his episodes is a complete surprise and unbelievable craftsman-like acting. Emmy-worthy. The new characters the show introduces are also great, for the most part. Bob is the biggest surprise, and, in my opinion, the most likeable character on the show this year, especially how he ended the season and how much he is developed over it. Max is also good as she fills the hole left by Eleven and, while annoying at first, is a cool addition to the team with good chemistry and interaction overall. The Doctor is great too, as he is more personable and identifiable than Papa, while still keeping the mysterious aura alive about him. The only new unlikeable character was Billy, as discussed later.

Finally, the best thing about the season as far as I’m concerned and one I was begging for before watching: Stranger Things Season 2 turns up the horror and breaks much more ORIGINAL storytelling ground this season!! My biggest problem with the show in S1 was how it was basically an exact copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Stephen King’s It (1986), and Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982), all mashed together and given a new name to fool younger audiences into thinking the show was the first one to come up with these ideas. To anyone who loves, or even respects, films and original ideas, that would be infuriating, even when the show is good and succeeds in most other areas. Well, thankfully, ST turns down the copying this season (still a little bit but far less) and puts on their thinking caps to take the story in exciting new directions. The monster is scary and bigger-stakes than the singular Demagorgon, we get a glimpse into how they are made and develop, and there are more of them, with incredible horror and tension-filled scenes like El’s mother’s backstory, the monster’s stalking of will, and the fight scenes. There are also other cool developments like Nancy and Johnson – such a loveable ship and perfectly slow-developed romance, Ep. 7’s 008 gang and a darker side of El, and Steve’s transformation from douche in Season 1 to brother-figure and rootable-guy in Season 2.

Now, the cons. Stranger Things 2 is a great season of television overall, but it still falls victim to some of its same flaws from last season, as well as some new ones. First and biggest, the show still copies ideas from other movies, bringing new classics into the mix without outright citing their sources. The biggest and most insulting one is Aliens. After the first Alien, where Ridley and her team are first introduced to the Xenomorph and learn how it develops and functions, the sequel Aliens aggrandizes the scale with having her and a new team go back and fight even more of them in a seemingly impossible situation. Sound familiar? Besides the fact that Stranger Things does the same thing in Season 2 with showing how the Demagorgon’s life cycle works, it looks exactly like a young Xenomorph. The fact that the show still has yet to cite Alien is a travesty when it got 99% of its premise from it, and it also should have referenced The Exorcist for how much it copies its ideas. Will’s contact and possession by the Shadow Monster, with full gradual and progressively worsening transformation IN A HOSPITAL GOWN (same thing Linda Blair wore in the movie), without even a clever line like “We might need to call an Exorcist for Will” is just maddening. Finally, a few of the plot points like Dustin not recognizing Dart’s questionable heritage and refusing to accept the truth while others die is just idiotic. Barbara’s story resolution is a bit lazy, and Billy is a thoroughly heartless, sickening, unnecessary, and borderline racist character that serves no real purpose in the season.

Overall, Stranger Things Season 2 is a strong, captivating season of television that thankfully breaks new, exciting original narrative ground and turns up the stakes and horror of the original season, while also not losing its heart and themes. Bring on S3.

Official CLC Score: 9.2/10

Season 3 Review – 4/10

Still reeling from that ending upside-down shot of the infamous afar shadow monster now right on top of our heroes’ seeming-bliss, Season 3 could not have arrived sooner on this glorious Fourth of July, 2019. Season 1 being an addictive binge limited by its unoriginality conglomerating many ’80’s sci-fi flicks into one and Season 2 being phenomenal breaking new ground in dramatically-darker fashion, Season 3 had every opportunity to blow the door open like Eleven’s mind-control tricks with a masterpiece final farewell to one of the world’s most popular shows. It did not do that. Though darker, filled with nostalgic americana, coming-of-age themes through multiple split-team story arcs, & markedly better cinematography, ST S3 is plagued by awful character additions in Max & Erica, mary sues/empty virtue-signals, and continued unorignality for its weakest season by far.

Dark auras counterbalanced by summer-nostalgic americana. Starting with its boasts, the season gets off to a strong start early that’s dramatically darker than most of its past storylines. Watching simple experimentation by a covert Russian organization on a portal into the Upside-Down turn into a barbecue in typical fourth of july fashion – if human flesh was your idea of a slider source – is an effectively-gruesome way to start that pushes its age-boundaries to skew more to the older side, only to be one-upped over the season in everything from body/identity horror straight out Invasion of The Body Snatchers to zombie-like tropes straight out of your favorite ‘Blank’ Of The Dead film to melted human flesh monsters straight out Carpenter’s The Thing. Billy makes a strong main antagonist for the season, finely supported by the rest of his supporting cast. Summer fun is also there to be had amongst all the sci-fi/horror through its palatable tonal mixing and markedly better cinematography. Flaunting the same signature-strong soundtrack-work in everything from Huey Lewis And The News to funk pop to country-rock to its iconic sumptuous synthy theme, the visuals parallel it with far-improved crispness and construction of shots likely the result of another massive budget-upping and bringing in of professionals by Netflix to trick out the sensory parts.

The tone also bounces jubilantly from teen romance to comedy to sci-fi to horror reasonably impressively, invoking feelings of nostalgic americana from simpler times through trips to community pools in the summertime, fourth of july firework-lit night barbecues, and midnight movie showings at the mall of Back To The Future or Day Of The Dead. Equally-important is its juggling of multiple split-team story arcs rife with coming-of-age themes. Splitting the team up into mini’s was a smart idea giving each character their own development/growth arc with plenty to do – Nancy and Jonathan’s beat reporter storyline to Mike and El’s teen romance/break-up to Hopper and Joyce’s parental dancings to Dustin and Steve’s (and Robin) buddy-cop comedy/evil russian spy storyline to the splitting of gendered Boy vs. Girl teams mid-season. It even introduces a couple of great new characters like sweet/humorous Alexei and charismatic Scoops-coworker Robin across its brisk 8-episode length. Finally, the season ends on a fine emotionally-resonant character-heavy point (after thrilling firework-gunpowder fights with the Mind Flayer’s Thing-ish weapon/beast) that could have definitely worked as an effective series finale.

Now for the flaws – and there are a lot. The season takes a sharp turn around Ep. 3-4 from the strong opening and detours into subpar entertainment with contrived screenwriting all for some empty shameless virtue-signaling by way of its awful team-additions: Max and Erica. Max is one of the worst characters I’ve ever seen. The season fits in a lot of eye-rolling political pandering and fake-feminist points throughout, from its Nancy Drew tantrum (she’s an INTERN yet expects to be lead/star reporter..? And because she isn’t, of course it’s the boys’ club’s fault! – because she’s the only intern that’s *ever* had to fetch coffee) to Joyce suddenly becoming a walmart-worker-turned-physics-expert on electromagnets after a few fell off her fridge to Dustin going on about how absolutely *perfect*/Mary Sue-ish his new girlfriend is (I mean, really, really perfect) to Robin – great new character overall that of course had to be hijacked to pander to LGBTQ audiences after teasing her and Steve getting together *all season*..), but none is as off-puttingly toxic and unnecessary/hateful as Max.

Max literally advocates for leading on/breaking up with guys and laughing while they wallow in (perhaps-suicidal) self-pity using them to sadistically self-aggrandize with power (without even hearing the full story as Mike was put in an impossible situation by Hopper not nearly his fault), cannot go three frames without making inane generalizations like ‘stupid boys’, hypocritically going shopping to golddigging-advocating songs like Material Girl, spying on the guys invading their privacy (wrong no matter how you look at it), and reminding everyone every frame how incredible El is (counted them say it literally 7x in the final 2 episodes ALONE – just in case you somehow didn’t get the message Stranger Things desparately needs you to know: girlz rule). I’m surprised she wasn’t cheering in the end sacrifice because it meant one less man in the world – apparently all she wants (while having a boyfriend too.. because consistent screenwriting?). It comes across so forced and SJW-pandering, it’s vomit-inducing and politically-hijacks what could’ve otherwise been a strong season. Continued unoriginality and no coherence in overarching franchise. Stranger Things is back in form AGAIN stealing more other people’s and film’s ideas – while marketing them as their own under a rebranded new name.

The monster is clearly an exact copy of The Thing being an oozy human-flesh substance that can take on people’s apperances to hide itself in plain sight while it feeds and feeds. The subjects it uses are also clearly ‘Of The Dead’ (mainly Dawn/Day/Night with a little Evil Dead too) copied in everything down to the makeup, power, and outfits. The Russian bounty hunter after them is finally inarguably a rehash of Terminator in classically-Schwarzeneggerian fashion down to the black leather jacket. So far, in 3 seasons alone, Stranger Things has copied ideas/their entire concept from Alien, It, Aliens, E.T., The Exorcist, Terminator, Day/Dawn/Night Of The Dead, Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers, X-Men/Doom Patrol, AND The Thing. It’s almost like a modern watered-down version of sci-fi for ignorant Gen. Z/millennials – sci-fi for people who don’t know real sci-fi. Even with this being inexcusably unoriginal and IP-thefting others’ already-proven work for your own personal gain, the problem is (especially apparent this season): the lore is beginning to break with a too-contrived overarching story. The Demagorgon, Demi-dogs, Mind Flayer, and Flesh-Monster have little to do with each other at all, having far too skimpy a connection to feel like even the same franchise. Instead, the screenwriting chalks it up to a godlike extradimensional being the size of our atmosphere (that’s apparently deathly afraid of.. a little girl with some metal-bending powers) that takes multiple seasons/years to stop a bunch of kids? The whole idea gets more and more hoaky the longer the series goes – and don’t get me started on the end post-credits scene shamelessly teasing ANOTHER season (almost positive S3 was marketed by Netflix itself as being ‘the final season’..) when the emotionally-resonant ending could’ve easily worked as a series finale until that scene.

Though darker, filled with nostalgic americana, coming-of-age themes through multiple split-team story arcs, & markedly better in cinematography, ST S3 is plagued by awful character additions in Max & Erica, mary sues/empty virtue-signals, and continued unoriginality for its weakest season by far. The Thing/DOTD-copied monster does not work in the established lore to feel like a coherent whole as a story instead just throwing proven-to-work others’ ideas on screen and marketing them as new and their own, Max and Erica are absolutely awful characters given inexplicably more screentime than fan-favorites like Dustin and Will, and there are more mary sues and political pandering instances than you can count in this summer/nostalgia-hued, strong-started season that loses steam mid-way to end with a thud. And, Things are only expected to get worse at this rate if they keep bludgeoning this series for meaningless episode-count (how’d that work for House of Cards, Netflix?) instead of ending it naturally when things feel right – and it definitely felt right to end this season.

Official CLC Score: 4/10

Overall Rating: 9.2/10