Knee Jerks: The Cinapse Team Responds to Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS!


Knee Jerks
Cinapse is squarely focused on discussing film, not reporting news flashes and casting rumors or speculating about the business side of things. So when a big story breaks, we’ll do our best to not simply regurgitate what you can read elsewhere, but rather offer meaningful reflections and insights. That’s when we turn to jerks — Knee Jerks!

Netflix has ushered in a whole new era of event television. Sure we’ve all grown accustomed to binging and watching shows at our own pace versus waiting for a network to program them. But I’m not sure we’ve yet adjusted to the instantaneous and complete arrival of a season of television dropping into our lives. I know I’m not. I had grand plans for the various deadlines and responsibilities in my life when Netflix recently dropped Stranger Things to all its subscribers. It seemed a show right up my alley, but responsibility dictated that I wait to take it in. Then the movie world exploded with talk of this show. It was unavoidable and the temptation proved simply overwhelming.

Some of you binged it in a matter of a day or two. Many are still making their way through. Most who have pressed play have found themselves quickly enveloped in the 1980s-set, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King-inspired 8 episode series.

The Cinapse team has jumped on the watch train in a pretty big way, and we thought we’d offer our knee jerk reactions to this cultural phenomenon in the making.

Ed: Stranger Things couldn’t have been more squarely targeted at me. As a sucker for 1980s-set and inspired entertainment, an ardent Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter fan, and even as an appreciator of clever sci-fi, coming-of-age tales, and stories about geeks… Stranger Things knows me, knows there are many like me, and came straight for our jugulars. It smelled our blood. And as Stranger Things’ walking, talking target demo, I couldn’t be more happy. It’s like these mysterious Duffer Brothers whom I’ve never heard of before came into my life unexpectedly and offered me a present of great value. I find myself feeling grateful after experiencing a grand adventure I didn’t even know was in store for me.

Stranger Things isn’t some perfect piece of entertainment. And anything trading in nostalgia brings as much baggage with it as it does rewards. But regardless of its overall place in the television pantheon, and how objectively great or not great it is… one thing it certainly is is hugely satisfying. The little kid nerds interacting with the escaped young girl on the run from her government experimenters and captors, the teenagers experiencing sexual awakening even as they reckon with literal monsters invading their town, and the broken mother searching for her missing son teaming up with a local sheriff clawing himself back from the brink after the loss of his own child… these are all rich through lines filled with perfectly cast actors playing characters with depth and substance. You want to spend 8 hours with these people. And in spite of the rich genre exercise on display here, complete with an impressive monster and a dynamite soundtrack, it’s the heart and emotion of Stranger Things that makes it truly special. This is a well planned and executed 8 part story crafted for maximum emotional impact. It drew me in and got its hooks into me. But much like many pieces of art trading on nostalgia, my biggest concern is that it will quickly fade from memory. Perhaps only time will tell how it stacks up among other television greats in this golden era. (@Ed_Travis)

Dan: Stranger Things is not just a cobbled together nostalgia, but a great story that draws on so much without being a belligerent homage to 80s cinema. Carpenter, Spielberg, Raimi, O’Bannon, Scott and Cronenberg are all name checked in almost a perfect storm of influences as the story tackles everything from telekinesis to teen sex in a small remote town. The writing feels true and the characters organic in how they interact and exist in this strange little world. Mike, Eleven and their friendship is what locked me in for the long haul, because if you were one of those “weirdos” in high school, you were probably one of these kids.

The story here, while leaving some questions unanswered, was very satisfying when the all too brief 8 episode arc came to a close. That said, given the legs this show has we will no doubt get a season 2 sooner rather than later.(@danthefan)

In a summer of dreary cinematic offerings with not a single gem to be found, Netflix comes to the rescue with Stranger Things, which has to be without question one of the most thrilling and compulsively watchable television experiences I’ve had in years.

The show has thus far been compared to everything from early Spielberg to Twin Peaks to Stephen King. All of the comparisons are justified as the makers of Stranger Things are clearly devotees of some of the most game changing works of supernatural fantasy from the last three decades. While this would lead some (myself included) to think that the series would be nothing more than a collection of overt tributes to the above mentioned greats, it becomes clear right off the bat that Stranger Things is its own beast. Each episode is packed with so much imagination, wonder, mystery (who is Eleven and why are they after her?) and heart that there simply isn’t a moment without something incredibly diverting or telling within it.

While Stranger Things boasts everything from monsters to suspense to human conflict, the series would not be as powerful without the incredible gifts of it’s leading lady. As a mother frantically searching for her missing son, Winona Ryder not only eats up her meatiest role in years, but also gives Stranger Things some serious cred. With the likes of Beetlejuice, Dracula and Black Swan to her name, Ryder’s association with dark storytelling can always be counted on as a mesmerizing experience. Whether it be the manic intensity she just naturally projects and the uncharacteristic, yet haunting looks the actress possesses, she has made a name for herself by surrounding herself in the darker side of the imagination. Stranger Things capitalizes on this by giving Ryder a strong, but emotionally fragile, character and placing her in the kind of dark cinematic world in which she thrives best.

Alex: 80s nostalgia is tricky to do, and even a film as well-made as Super 8 (suck it, haters) can never get out from under the weight of its inspirations, which is a big part of what makes Stranger Things such a delightful surprise. Sure, the show’s premise eventually breaks down to E.T. meets Carrie meets Poltergeist with a healthy dose of It and an excellent John Carpenter-inspired score. But the show never feels obliged to pay homage. Instead, it does its own thing, building a roundly compelling cast of characters and telling a story layered with satisfying payoffs both big (Eleven’s compelling final episode act) and small (Hopper’s anguish over his dead daughter manifesting itself as he tries to save Will).

What really sells this show is the strong performances, especially from the young actors who are pitted against the monster from the Upside Down. There’s a lot of complex work being done here, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, tremendous as the powerful and vulnerable Eleven, and Caleb McLaughlin as the easily frustrated but unfailingly loyal Lucas, but the most purely lovable character is Dustin, perfectly played by Gaten Matarazzo. The rest of the cast is just as good, and it’s easy to invest in their various story arcs, especially as the season draws to a close and its characters come together against the common threat.

This was such a terrific season of television that I don’t particularly want a second one – at least, not with these characters. Despite the breadcrumbs left at the end of the season setting up the continuation of the story, Stranger Things feels complete after eight episodes, and I’m not particularly interested in further exploring the Upside Down or undermining Eleven’s heroism by bringing her back, as implied in Hopper’s final scene. Instead, I would much rather see a whole new tale equally influenced by Spielberg, King, and Carpenter but maintaining its own originality. On the other hand, it would be nice to see if Dustin ever gets his adult teeth.(@alexwilliamsdt)

Liam:When it comes to discussing a project like Stranger Things, one inevitably must comment on “nostalgia”. Nostalgia is at its essence not just a feeling, but a kind of sickness. One looks unto a past that one cannot truly see for what it was, one’s longing and desire obscures the reality for something else entirely. That is, we want not just what we had, but what have never had, because it was always a fantasy. Stranger Things manages two magical things which are quite difficult. It creates a world in a time period we think we know, that is alien enough to be attractive, but familiar enough to resonate with our often unreliable memories. Yet it is not just reminiscent of our lived 80s, but our imagined one as well. That is, it is an amalgamation of all the best dreams and nightmares of that time. It does pay homage to all the great writers and directors you have seen folks mention, but in a way it does so less to reference them specifically. Instead it creates its own version of nostalgia, not for an idealized reality past, but for an idealized imagined past. It creates the adventure we all wish we could have seen or read prior to now, because it mines the creative magic of so many disparate and yet also resonate source, and some how manages to create something new and magical with it all.

It’s also, unsurprisingly, technically proficient and impactful. The writing is superb, the acting is amazing, with a career redefining performance from Rider. The directing is consistently stellar from episode to episode. Yet for me it is this world they have created, the one which reminds of the life I lived and the one I dreamed, that makes me fall so deeply in love with the show.

Justin: Everyone is talking about the 80s feel and nostalgia of Stranger Things, mostly because it’s a huge part of what makes the series so great. It’s an unabashed love letter to the decade where Amblin and other companies discovered a perfect balance of horror, sci-fi, and family friendliness in their films. Films like The Goonies, Monster Squad, The Neverending Story, and (of course) E.T., resonated with an entire generation of kids and many of their parents, too. Many late Gen-Xers and early Millenials remain enamored with the films from this period. This group of film fans includes the Duffer brothers, the creators of this great new Netflix series.

With nods to the aforementioned films and a host of other horror and science fiction, Stranger Things makes no attempt to veil the influence and inspiration drawn from the films of the Duffers’ youth. This makes for a ton of fun for others born and bred on these films, but the series is something more than just a nostalgia fest. Instead, it’s a new and exciting story that embraces the magic of those films while refusing to allow them to distract from creating something fresh. The characters are rich and make you really care about them. Each episode leaves you wanting more. With this series, Netflix has further strengthened its place in the new television landscape.

As a parent, I find myself most interested in the roles of the parents in the story. Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers is in top form, emoting and kicking ass in the tradition of some of the great sci-fi moms of the past. Another great parent in the series, David Harbour’s Chief Hopper is an interesting study in a man broken by the loss of his child and his marriage. While the kids are the real focus and real magic, the adults of the story are an added glue holding the story together.

In short, the series is a great one and here’s hoping to many more seasons. Netflix and the Duffers have truly caught magic in a bottle with Stranger Things. (@thepaintedman)

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis

  • Rhea

    All Hail Barb, Queen of the Upside Down!