These words you’re about to read were written from a completely biased perspective. I am absolutely, in every way possible engrossed by the Science Fiction genre. I walked out of Ex Machina in complete awe. When I read, and then listened to Philip K Dick’s Ubik I thought about it every single day for months. Blade Runner is… well, just is Blade Runner. A Space Odyssey, Primer, The Fifth Element. The list of monumental films in this genre goes on and on, I couldn’t possibly list them all.
On the 15th of July Netflix Original series ‘Stranger Things’ was released, created by Duffer brothers – Matt & Ross. The appropriately short and piercingly sharp story centres around a small fictional town in Indiana where 12 year old Will Byers mysteriously disappears. As each episode slowly unravels the many mysteries that plague members of the town, even more questions, intrigue, darkness and thrill continue to arise. Audiences are taken on an emotional, and psychological road trip from hell into the inner depths of a deep and unpredictable nightmare.
A surefire way to reel an audience into a story, and get them personally invested in the characters, the town, the conflict and the series of events that unfold throughout the film is to establish a rich, vivid and engulfing atmosphere. The Duffer brothers managed to find exactly the right balance of all the different parameters to keep the viewer right at the edge of their seat. Set in an 80’s town in Indiana, the Duffer brothers use technology as a recurring theme throughout the show. Misfit kids Mike, Dustin and Lucas are never far without their handheld CB radios. Haunting phone calls are made through wall-phones that shock their unsuspecting victims quite literally into dropping the earpiece and leaving it dangling from its curled up ancient cord. Kids listen to cassette tapes, record players and missing boy Will’s older brother Jonathan even shoots photographs with his stock standard Pentax k1000 spring loaded camera.
It helps that the town, Hawkins, is small. The number of key characters that the viewer must keep track of is very small, while there are also just enough minor characters – teachers, police officers, school friends, bullies and townspeople to make the story feel authentic. The overall warmness, and quiet peacefulness of Hawkins creates a distinct sense of familiar humbleness. Viewers somehow recognise the town, they’ve seen it before, as if it is cliche, although not quite entirely so. Warm yellow light from light bulbs, christmas lights, and natural daylight is used within most of the scenes around the town. Contrastingly stark bright, white and artificial light is used in more supernatural, upside down shots.
Music teeters on the edge of taking centre stage throughout each episode. An incredibly intense but gradual introduction theme feels inspired by the X files, Stephen King, Ex Machina and 2001: A Space Odyssey all at the same time and yet still something so distinctly different. It elicits all of the mystery, intrigue and supernatural tones that are spread out throughout the series. It becomes almost chilling to the viewer as the story unfolds.
The Duffer brothers also use non-diegetic sound in a dynamic way to create a flow from scene to scene, and at times a contrast between scenes and physical locations. Early on in the series, light hearted but upbeat synth music creates a soft, nostalgic feeling to reassure the viewer and provide an almost false sense of security. During the darker supernatural scenes harsher and louder music startles audience and provides an intense bass along with the quick and thrilling shot cuts.
Multi-layered, more than meets the eye, tension-cutting characters are what makes this show the monumental success that it is. At first glance, Hawkins is a stereotypical town; a perfect setting for a thriller. Officer Jim Hopper even alludes to the classic ‘nothing bad ever happens in this town’ genre cliche when he says “You wanna know the worst thing that’s ever happened here in the four years I’ve been working here?” But just as fast as the story takes ahold of you and shocks you out of your seat, you realise that the characters depicted aren’t as simple and flat as they seem. They each peal away their protective layers as they are forced further out of their comfort zone and into the dark, upside down unknown.
El is a great example of this. We see at the beginning that she knows a lot more than she leads others to believe. We know that she is not always telling the truth, and fears what people think of her if she is to be honest about who she is and what she has done. Over time she reveals more and more, and fights against the mental handcuffs that have been imposed upon her by her ‘papa’.
Jim Hopper is revealed to us as a careless, tired and bored sherif. He initially takes no interest in the case of Will’s disappearance. He believes Joyce Byers to be in shock and mentally unstable, only to accidentally become embroiled in a conspiracy and helpless to his instinctual urge to dig deeper and uncover the truth behind the mystery.
Audiences have been quick to recognise that the Duff brothers pay homage to many iconic movies within the Science Fiction and Thriller genres. This homage enriches the nostalgic feeling and atmosphere that the show’s creators looked to shape. Many of the scenes throughout the series somehow feel subtly familiar to the viewer but it is not immediately clear to them exactly why.
A long shot of Will running outside of the house to the backyard shed harkens back to a very similar shot from the 1982 film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Shots of scientists and explorers in body suits, lit by a neon green backlight resembles the same shot in the 1979 film Alien. And who could overlook the obvious homage that the group of boys Mike, Dustin and Lucas resemble from 1985’s The Goonies as they bicker amongst each other, riding their bikes around town in the day and in the night. A monster that communicates through light to Joyce Byers resembles very similar monster behaviour depicted in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Joyce Byers is again used in homage, when she sledge hammers into the wall the same way that Jack Nicholson famously does in the 1980’s thriller The Shining.
It’s “E.T.” meets “Goonies” meets “Stand by Me” and all that other fun, old-time sentimentality that hits at the heart of the Internet.
Stranger Things is a series that underlines everything that I love about the Science Fiction genre. It is thrilling and surreal but in a way that is unpredictable, relatable and extremely intense. The Duff brothers have created a truly monumental success with this series and it is such a great fit for the Netflix Originals title as a show that only gets better when binged on a cold weekend in a dark room. Its atmosphere is incredible, the characters that carry the story are as authentic as the universe they live in, the music that sets up the show pulls the viewer into the universe and keeps them consistently on edge. The way that the brothers have paid homage to so many iconic films in such subtle and creative ways is brilliant. Following on from the show itself, Netflix and the production team behind the show have done an amazing job of carrying the universe further with creative poster art and a yet to be released soundtrack. There’s also a lot of value to be had by checking out the music by the soundtrack musician himself, and videos to watch and explore that cut up the homage scenes and the best bits of the show. Stranger Things is great and I cannot wait to watch it again.