Sunday, July 17, 2016

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Will's Friends Look For Him After He Disappears in 'Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 1.01 "Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers"

When a young boy disappears, his mother must confront terrifying forces in order to get him back.

With Netflix's new period drama Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers (Matt & Ross) set out for an homage of the Steven Spielberg and Stephen King stories of the 1980s. The show is made with so much love and appreciation for the time period and the genre. It's a show filled with darkness, horror and monstrosity. That defined some of the best works of the time period. And now, it seems like the genre is transitioning to television in a wonderful way. Stranger Things understands what makes this type of story work. So many of the details of the genre have become cliched and formulaic over the years. And yet, all it takes is the proper and earnest execution to make them just as effective now as they were 30 years ago. All cliches and shortcuts can be forgiven with proper writing and directing. In its first episode at least, it seems like Stranger Things is succeeding with that.

Stranger Things is set in the quiet and peaceful town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983. This is a small community where nothing bad ever happens. The biggest crimes are gnomes going missing from front yards and owls attacking wild hairstyles. It's a town where people feel safe. The kids can wander about on their bikes through the streets and in the nearby woods without fear of anything bad ever happening to them. Of course, not everything is as it seems in Hawkins. That's not surprising at all given the genre the show is paying homage to. In fact, the opening sequence is quite dark and horrifying. It showcases this season's version of the scary, supernatural creature. At the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory, scientists are working on mysterious and creepy experiments. And now, one of their experiments has escaped. It's in the lowest depths of this facility, that such monstrosity and evil exists. When the scientist flees for his life, there's nothing but an elevator with an up button to greet him. And even then, his escape is futile. The creature strikes. It's a horrifying and very visceral way to start the series. It embraces darkness while still building up the mystery and intrigue of this creature that will change the lives of everyone in town.

The creepiness continues as the narrative transitions to Mike Wheeler and his group of middle school aged friends - Will, Dustin and Lucas. He is telling a story about a creature coming for them. A perilous and darkness is about to swallow them whole. It's then revealed that the friends are just playing Dungeons and Dragons. It's a strong and effective buildup and release of tension. It indicates that darkness and horror is about to disrupt all of their lives shortly. Right now, the game is the most important thing to them. They are unable to finish it. They've been playing for 10 hours and it's time to go home. It's on that bike ride back to his house that Will comes into contact with the creature. The audience never gets to see the creature. But the sequence is very effective because of what the audience can hear and the ominous teases of what this creature is. We hear the slithering sound of a massive beast targeting its prey. Will flees his bike to escape to his home. But that's not any safer for him than the woods were. The shadows of the beast descend upon the house. He is all alone facing incredible odds against this creature. All he has is an unused shotgun in the shed to defend himself. And even then, it's not enough. The power surges and he's gone. He's vanished without a trace. It's a very cool and effective way to establish the stakes of the series. The sequence is shot by focusing on the lightbulb in the shed. The audience has no bigger understanding of what happened than the characters do.

The rest of the premiere is the investigation into Will's disappearance - starting with his mother, Joyce, and brother, Jonathan, realizing that he's missing. The police chief, Hopper, tries to calm Joyce down by saying that they shouldn't be too worried. He claims that 99 out of a 100 times, the child is with a relative. But Joyce wants to know about the one other time. She has no idea how right she really is. How could she know that a supernatural creature has taken her son? She just knows that something is wrong and this isn't like all the other missing person cases. She needs to find her son. She has struggled to provide for her family. She's a single mother working as much as she can to care for her two sons. They are just barely getting by. But they at least have each other. And now, Will has been taken and Joyce and Jonathan don't know what to do. They desperately cry out for him in the woods. He's not in his secret hiding spot. Yes, it's a very familiar and overwrought sequence. But it's also very effective and chilling. This family just wants to know what happened to Will. Things are only going to get worse before they get better though.

Hopper isn't as completely useless as he first seems either. He's a man recovering from a horrible tragedy in his life by drinking his sorrows away. He arrives late for work and takes his pills with beer. He's not a man well-composed to lead this investigation. And yet, he's all this small town has. Yes, it's painfully expositional when the audience learns about the tragedy of Hopper's past. That's the only important thing that comes from the volunteers searching the woods for Will. It informs the audience that Hopper's daughter was killed. That will probably help connect him to the emotional stakes of the season. It's just a very forced moment here. However, Hopper still has the instincts to be a good detective. He knows upon finding Will's bike that something must have really scared him to leave it behind. He also knows that he was probably able to make it home before he was taken. All of these are solid leads that show Hopper is a competent and capable man. But he doesn't have the foresight to further analyze the scene around the bike or the shed where Will was taken. All he knows is some nefarious is afoot and he has very little details to go on.

Mike, Dustin and Lucas' reactions to learning about Will's disappearance are important as well. They may just be kids but they are lead performers on the show. They were close friends with Will. Their friendship was a key bright spot in their lives. They are the outsiders at school. They are geeks who want to be in the A.V. club or playing D&D. They are the social outcasts of this world. That makes them prime to understand and respect everything that is about to happen this season. They can't just sit back and not look for Will. He is their friend. They must search for him because he would do the same for them. It's meaningful that Mike makes that decision while connecting Will's final play in their D&D game to real life. He chose to fight instead of protect his friends from the monster attack. They need to do the same for him now. Of course, this is real life. It's not just a game they can play for a couple of hours and then go back to their lives. This has the potential to change everything for them and this community. They don't find Will by the end of the premiere. Instead, they find a stranger, Eleven, who will probably only bring more chaos and confusion to their lives because of her connection to the lab.

However, not everything completely works in this premiere. There's a very fine line between homage that's rewarding to the viewers and imitation without true understanding of the genre. The tropes of this piece could easily revert back to being the same boring plot setups the audience has seen numerous times before. A lot of the premiere is inspired and unique. But it also really isn't doing a whole lot with its female characters. Winona Ryder is able to bring out something electric in Joyce as she transitions from concerned mother of a missing boy to frazzled mother of a missing boy. It should be fascinating to watch her slowly descend into chaos as she is desperately pushed to understand what happened to Will. But the other female characters largely feel like filler - especially Mike's family. Plus, the character archetype for Eleven is something that has derailed a number of sci-fi shows over the past few years. She's the creepy and mysterious child with special abilities that the show may or may not explain eventually but not right now. She's important because the show says she is. She's a key motivator for action. As soon as she arrives at the diner, it's pretty clear that the owner will be killed shortly. However, it's still a very effective sequence when it happens because of how the show evokes that particular mood and twist. So again, all of these concerns could be nothing by the end of the season. They are just enough to keep me from giving it even higher praise in this opening hour.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers" was written by Matt Duffer & Ross Duffer and directed by Matt Duffer & Ross Duffer.
  • All of the stuff with Mike's older sister, Nancy, and her dating life just doesn't feel important at all. It showcases a sense of normalcy in this extraordinary world. It will probably be important later on and needs this setup now. It was just distracting to go back to it as much as the premiere did.
  • Cara Buono plays Mike's mother Karen. It really did take me awhile to recognize her considering I've liked her numerous times on other shows. Hopefully, she becomes more than the nagging mom who grounds her kids. That's no fun at all.
  • Elsewhere, Matthew Modine plays Dr. Martin Brenner, the lead scientist from the Department of Energy who comes in to see the mess that has happened at the lab. He largely seems to build up the mystery surrounding the facility.
  • Brenner also provides a look at where the creature came from. It was a pretty nasty sight while also indicating that it could be a pretty massive beast.
  • Dustin largely serves as comic relief. However, he has quite an important moment in saying that whatever happened to Will was probably really bad and now the rest of the friends are walking right towards it.
  • Joyce got a phone call from a mysterious source. All she heard was breathing on the other side of the line. And yet, she's convinced it's Will and that he's still alive. Of course, the phone completely breaks after that.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that release their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.