Film Crit Hulk Smash: The Strange Motivations Of STRANGER THINGS

The hit show everyone's talking about with a lot of problems no one's talking about.

NOTE: THIS ENTIRE THING CONTAINS SPOILERS

THE THIRD EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS ENDS WITH A CHILD'S BODY BEING FOUND. THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THE SHOW HAS REVOLVED AROUND THIS CHARACTER'S DISAPPEARANCE. WHEN THEY FIND OUT, THE OTHER CHARACTERS FEEL HEARTBROKEN AND EXPRESS THIS CRUSHING EMOTION. AFTER ALL THAT SEARCHING AND HOPE, THE WORST IS REALLY TRUE.... HE'S DEAD. AND AS THE IMAGES OF SAD CHARACTERS SPILL OUT ONSCREEN, THE FAMILIAR LYRICS OF DAVID BOWIE'S "HEROES" COME INTO PLAY, ALBEIT IN A SLOW, LONESOME PIANO RENDITION OF THE SONG... IT ALL FEELS DISTINCTLY CINEMATIC, AS THE INCREDIBLE ACTORS EMOTE WITH CLARITY AND VERVE...

... AND IT'S ALL COMPLETELY WRONG.

NONE OF IT REALLY MAKES SENSE ON A DRAMATIC LEVEL. WE KNOW HE'S KIND OF ALIVE AND WE EVEN KNOW THE MANNER IN WHICH HE'S KIND OF ALIVE (BASED ON WHAT WE SAW IN THE PRIOR EPISODE WITH BARB, AND THE WAY ELEVEN SEEMS TO UNDERSTAND WHAT'S HAPPENING EVEN IN THE MOMENT THE BOYS ARE UPSET). AND ON THE FLIP-SIDE, THE SCENE DOESN'T ACTUALLY PLAY LIKE A FAKE-OUT OR REVERSAL TO THAT. AND THERE'S NO DRAMATIC IRONY TO THE EVENT EITHER... IT JUST SORT OF HAPPENS. WHAT'S WORSE IS THE REAL INFORMATION WE ALREADY INSTINCTIVELY KNOW WILL BE EFFECTIVELY REVEALED TO THE AUDIENCE VERY, VERY SOON AFTER. AND THAT'S THE REAL THING HERE. THERE'S NOTHING ACTUALLY BEING "PLAYED" ON A DRAMATIC LEVEL OTHER THAN THE MOMENTARY AFFECTATION OF THE SCENE'S TONE. THIS MOMENT ISN'T MEANINGFUL TO US, NOR EVEN TO SOME CHARACTERS WHO SEEM TO INHERENTLY DENY IT, NOR CAN WE REALLY SYMPATHIZE WITH THE CHARACTERS BASED ON THE INFORMATION PRESENTED. EVEN WORSE, IT'S A SAD AFFECTATION MADE ALL THE MORE PUZZLING BY THE TONE-DEAF SONG CHOICE. BECAUSE THE CLEARLY-SUNG LYRICS OF "HEROES" HAVE NOTHING TO FREAKING DO WITH THIS SUPPOSEDLY SOBERING MOMENT.

HULK WOULD ARGUE THAT ALL OF THE "WRONGNESS" OF THIS SCENE IS DEEPLY REPRESENTATIVE OF STRANGER THINGS' PROBLEMS ON THE WHOLE. IT MEANS WELL. IT LIKES ALL THE SAME THINGS YOU LIKE. BUT THIS SHOW IS A CONSTANTLY CONFUSED STORY THAT ALWAYS SEEMS TO VAGUELY KNOW WHAT IT IS AIMING FOR AND HAS NO IDEA HOW TO REALLY GET THERE OR WHAT TO DO WITH IT. AND IF THERE IS ONE WORD HULK WOULD USE TO DESCRIBE THE STORY OF STRANGER THINGS IT'S THIS:

HAPHAZARD.

AGAIN, IT'S NOT THAT IT ISN'T WELL-INTENTIONED, IT'S JUST THAT IT'S HAPHAZARD ON EVERY STORY LEVEL, FROM PLOT, TO CHARACTER, TO THE INHERENT DRAMA OF EVERYTHING. YOU KNOW HULK COULD CARE LESS ABOUT PLOT LOGIC, BUT IT SEEMED LIKE EVERY FIVE MINUTES HULK WAS GOING "WAIT, WHAT?" AND NOT BECAUSE OF SOME PROMPTED QUESTIONS OF MYSTERY, BUT RATHER JUST GENERAL CONFUSION AS TO WHAT EXACTLY WAS HAPPENING AND WHY THE FILMMAKERS WERE UNSPOOLING THE INFORMATION IN THE WAY THEY WERE. FOR INSTANCE, HULK LIKED HER AND ALL, BUT HULK NEVER HAD A SENSE OF "THE RULES" OF ELEVEN OR EVEN WHAT SHE WAS REALLY DOING OR WANTED OUTSIDE OF GENERAL SAFETY. HULK NEVER KNEW WHAT SHE COULD OR COULD NOT UNDERSTAND, OR WHAT CHARACTERS UNDERSTOOD ABOUT HER. YOU COULD ARGUE "THAT'S THE POINT! SHE WAS THIS SUPERGIRL WHO DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE WORLD AND JUST PLOPPED INTO OUR LIVES!" BUT THAT WOULD ONLY MAKE SENSE IF THOSE QUESTIONS OF MYSTERY WERE HEIGHTENED AND A PART OF THE DRAMATIC STORY. IN REALITY, THESE WERE BASIC FAILINGS OF AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION, EXACERBATED BY THE SHOW'S FOOLHARDY AIM OF "MYSTERIOUSNESS."

BECAUSE THE TRUTH IS THAT "MYSTERIOUSNESS" JUST MEANS VAGUE.

IT'S A REALLY DIFFICULT THING TO EXPLAIN. BUT IT'S ONE OF THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL THINGS ABOUT PLOTTING. BEING VAGUE IS NOT EXPLORING SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS. BECAUSE IN STORYTELLING, UNFOLDING A MYSTERY IS CREATING A CRAFTED EXPERIENCE OF UNDERSTANDING, BUILT OF CLEAR INFORMATION, A CENTRAL DRIVING QUESTION, AND TWISTS AND TURNS THAT REDEFINE OUR KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN TERMS OF SCOPE, CHARACTER, AND DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF IT ALL. BUT THROUGHOUT STRANGER THINGS, WE DON'T GET THAT. WE GET VAGUE WAFFLING AND FURTHER EXPRESSIONS OF THINGS WE ALREADY KNOW. WE KNOW ALMOST EVERYTHING WE'LL ULTIMATELY KNOW ABOUT THE CREATURES AND THE UPSIDE-DOWN AFTER TWO EPISODES. AND SO EVENTS JUST KEEP TREADING WATER, CHARACTERS JUST HITTING TAG BACK AND FORTH UNTIL THE STORY KIND OF ENDS. THE ENTIRE DYNAMIC OF THE SHOW ACTUALLY WAS EXPRESSED BEAUTIFULLY BY ANDREW MATTHEWS, ONE HALF OF THE FILMMAKING DUO BEHIND ZERO CHARISMA. HE WRITES:

"Spielberg’s classics are actually very simple stories. They’re emotionally broad and fiercely economic. Every shot moves the story forward and nothing goes to waste. If you’re staying loyal to the conventions, you can’t stretch that 90 minutes into more than 300 without some serious padding and repetition.

How many times do we have to see the cool guy seduce the nerdy girl? How many times will Eleven use a radio to prove Will is still alive, or guide the boys into the woods and back again, with no new information to show for it? Why do you think people complained that Winona Ryder’s weeping became tiresome? Because she was asked to perform the same emotion over and over again. Besides being frustrating, these repetitions actually dilute important moments. How much more exciting would it have been when the sheriff and Joyce infiltrate the evil government lab if we hadn’t already seen him do it before? He even makes a joke about using the same method."

AND LATER:

"When Jonathan finally finds proof that his mother isn’t crazy, he rushes home to have that emotional reunion we’ve been waiting for — but his dad stops him. “Don’t bother her right now. She’s been through a lot.” I call that “plotblocking.” (Jonathan’s dad is an expert plotblocker.) Jonathan doesn’t grow or change to overcome this obstacle. He just literally tells her later. What purpose can that serve other than to make us wait for what we want to see?"

TO BE EVEN MORE HARSH, HULK WOULD ARGUE THAT PLOTBLOCKING DOESN'T NECESSARILY COME FROM HAVING TO FILL UP TV'S BINGE MODEL (EVEN DAREDEVIL FIGURED OUT A NICE LITTLE CLIFFHANGER APPROACH TO ITS CONCENTRATED STORYTELLING), HULK SIMPLY THINKS IT COMES FROM NOT KNOWING ANY BETTER. AS IN NOT KNOWING HOW TO CRAFT AN ACTUAL EPISODE OF TV, OR HOW TO FILL A SHOW WITH ATMOSPHERE OR STAKES BEFORE YOU PLAY THE BIG CARDS (THINK OF THE WAY BREAKING BAD CONSTANTLY FOUND DRAMA IN THE SMALLEST OF EVENTS BEFORE PLAYING "THE BIG CARDS"). BUT WITH THIS SHOW, THEY HAD ONE VAGUE STORY THEY KNEW THEY WANTED TO TELL, SO THEY JUST PLAYED THE SAME CARDS OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN IN THAT VAGUE, LACKING-FORM WAY, ALL TO LESS AND LESS EFFECT.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, ALL THIS WOULD BE MORE FORGIVABLE IF IT DIDN'T COME WITH A CRUSHING AMOUNT OF CHARACTER INCONSISTENCY. THERE ARE SILLY THINGS THAT COULD BE CHALKED UP TO POOR CHARACTER "MOVIE" LOGIC. LIKE "WAIT, SHE GOES INTO THE EVIL MONSTER TREE FOR WHAT REASON? HER CHARACTER LITERALLY HAS NO REASON TO UNDERSTAND THAT OR MAKE SENSE OF WHAT SHE'S SEEING AND BE MOTIVATED TO DO THIS!" THAT ISN'T JUST A HORROR TROPE THING OF "WHAT'S THAT SOUND," IT'S A BASIC FAILURE OF UNDERSTANDING THE MOMENT AND THAT MOMENT'S PLACE IN THE SHOW YOU'VE BEEN MAKING. SAME GOES FOR A LATER MOMENT OF "WAIT, HE'S REALLY GONNA JUMP OFF THE ROCKS AND COMMIT SUICIDE BECAUSE HE THINKS THAT KID IS GOING TO SLICE HIS FRIEND'S THROAT? WHERE DID THE HELL DID THIS COME FROM?" THE ANSWER: IT WAS JUST A NAKEDLY-OVERDRAMATIC SET UP TO HAVE ELEVEN SAVE HIM WITH HER POWERS.

BUT EVEN THESE TANGIBLE-DETAIL "MOVIE MOMENTS" WOULD BE FORGIVABLE WERE IT NOT ALSO INGRAINED INTO THE NUTS IN BOLTS ARTICULATION OF JUST ABOUT EVERY DAMN CONVERSATION IN THE SHOW. THERE'S ALWAYS SOME COCKAMAMY THEORY ABOUT WHAT'S GOING DOWN OR MAGIC BLOOD OR THIS OR THAT AND EVERYONE BUYS IT. SERIOUSLY, NOTHING EVER SEEMS MOTIVATED. NOTHING. CHARACTERS CONSTANTLY MAKE DRAMATIC DEDUCTIONS THAT MAKE NO SENSE AT THAT POINT IN THE STORY. IT'S ALWAYS THE SAME: THEY DISPLAY AN INCONSISTENT BEHAVIOR AND THEN EXPLAIN WHY THEY HAVE THAT BEHAVIOR WITH A JUSTIFICATION THAT IS OFTEN ALSO INCONSISTENT (AND WORSE, THESE MOMENTARY CHANGES ARE NOT REMEMBERED LATER IN THE SHOW).THEY'LL SHOUT TO THE MAIN BOY ABOUT LUCAS, "YOU GUYS ARE BEST FRIENDS!" AND IT'S LIKE, OH, WAIT,THEY ARE? WE KNOW THEY'RE FRIENDS BUT LITERALLY HAVE NO EVIDENCE OF THIS FACT IN THE SHOW AT HAND, NOR EVEN WHAT THEIR RELATIONSHIP IS LIKE OUTSIDE OF THE GROUP. IN FACT, IT SEEMS AS THOUGH THEY DON'T LIKE EACH OTHER THAT MUCH. IT'S LIKE THE WRITERS ARE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO JUSTIFY THEIR STORY CHOICES INSTEAD OF HAVING SOMETHING BE BUILT AND INNATELY UNDERSTOOD. AS A RESULT, THE ACT OF WATCHING STRANGER THINGS IS NOT TO BE IN IT AS IT'S HAPPENING, BUT SIMPLY TO FOLLOW ALONG AND CATCH UP,  TO REACT. TO HAVE THINGS EXPLAINED TO US, BUT OFTEN IN A WAY THAT WILL ONLY JUSTIFY THE MOMENT.

WHY DO ALL THIS? WHAT GUIDES IT? IT'S ALL JUST TRYING TO GET TO THE DESIRED EFFECT, OF COURSE. THERE'S A PERFECT MOMENT ILLUSTRATING THIS WHEN THE WOMAN IN THE POLICE STATION ISSUES THE OLDER SISTER A BIT OF "FOLKSY WISDOM", TELLING HER "YOU BETTER TELL HIM THAT!" (HE'S NOT YOUR BOYFRIEND) INFERRING "ONLY LOVE MAKES YOU THAT STUPID." IT'S THE KIND OF FAUX-INSIGHT THAT FEELS LIKE THE THING TO AIM FOR IN A STORY, BUT IT'S NOT REALLY HONEST TO THE BEHAVIOR OF HUMAN BEINGS, NOR DRAMATICALLY EXEMPLIFIED BY LITERALLY ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS HERE. TO HULK, IT IS THE PERFECT SIGNIFIER OF EVERYTHING IN THIS SHOW: GET TO THE FOLKSY LINE OF ROTE HUMAN INSIGHT, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER IT'S EARNED.

AND WHEN IT COMES TO A THEME, HULK HONEST TO GOD HAS TO IDEA WHAT THIS SHOW WANTS TO SAY ABOUT ANYTHING. LIKE EVEN THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF THE SHOW AREN'T COMPLEX OR NUANCED; THEY'RE JUST VAGUE. IT CONSTANTLY STEPS INTO THE ARENA OF FEELING KINDA GROSS ABOUT OLDER PHOTOGRAPHY BROTHER TAKING NAKEY PICTURES OF OLDER SISTER, OR THE WAY ELEVEN JUST WANTS TO FEEL PRETTY, OR WHY OLDER SISTER IS FINE WITH STALKER GUY. THEY DON'T PLAY ANY OF THAT FOR CONFLICT, EITHER. SURE WE WATCH THE CHARACTERS IN CONFLICT, BUT WE KNOW SHE DOESN'T CARE, SO THERE'S NOTHING BEING PLAYED HERE. AND WAIT, WHY DOESN'T SHE CARE, EXACTLY? AND HULK HAS NO IDEA WHY MAIN LITTLE BOY AND ELEVEN KISS AT THE END, OR WHAT SHE THINKS ABOUT IT, OR HOW IT EVEN MAKES SENSE TO THE PERSON WHO HAS BEEN PRESENTED THUS FAR... DOES SHE EVEN KNOW WHAT KISSING IS? DOESN'T THIS ALL SEEM REALLY WEIRD?

THE TRUTH IS HULK'S TOO CONFUSED TO FEEL GROSS ABOUT ANY OF IT.

IN THE END, THERE ISN'T A WHOLE ENTIRE WAY TO MAKE SENSE OF IT. THAT'S THE PROBLEM WITH THINGS THAT ARE TRULY HAPHAZARD. HULK CAN WATCH THE CHAOTIC, SPILLING ID OF MICHAEL BAY POP OUT IN THE FORM OF TRANSFORMERS 4, BUT THE PROBLEMS OF STRANGER THINGS ARE MUCH DIFFERENT THAN THAT. THERE ISN'T REALLY A CLEAR PSYCHOLOGY ON DISPLAY. JUST CONFUSION. HECK, THERE ARE ENTIRE MOMENTS AND SEQUENCES HULK HAS NOTES ON THAT DON'T FIT INTO SOME LARGER OBVIOUS POINT TO BE MADE.

QUESTIONS LIKE: WHY IS SHE REALLY ASKING WEIRDO TO COME UP? WHY ARE THERE CUTAWAYS TO LUCAS GETTING TOSSED AROUND - AKA WHO IS ACTIVELY REMEMBERING THIS IN THIS SCENE? WHY IS PAPA MODINE GETTIN' GOT ALL SHOT IN SUCH AN ANTICLIMACTIC AND WEIRD FASHION? WHY ARE THERE THOSE SUPER ON THE NOSE FLASHBACKS WITH THE POLICE CHIEF (WHO HAD A GREAT PERFORMANCE BY THE WAY) WHEN THEY DON'T REALLY DO ANYTHING DRAMATICALLY FOR THE STORY? HULK GETS IT, PULLING THE CORD REMINDS HIM OF HIS DAUGHTER. BUT THE LARGER DRAMATIC QUESTION IS: DOES THAT REALLY EFFECT HIM OTHER THAN "THIS IS EMOTIONAL!", WHICH THE SCENE ALREADY IS? AT THIS POINT, WE ALREADY UNDERSTAND HIS PSYCHOLOGY! WOULDN'T THIS HAVE PLAYED MUCH BETTER SOMEWHERE ELSE?

OH, AND THE COUP DE GRACE: HOW ELEVEN'S SACRIFICE MAKES LITERALLY NO SENSE IN A WORLD WHERE WE'VE PRETTY MUCH ESTABLISHED YOU DON'T NEED TO COMPLETELY OBLITERATE THESE THINGS? AND WAIT, WHY DID THE OLDER KIDS HAVE TO BATTLE ANYTHING IN WINONA RYDER'S HOME, OTHER THAN "HAVE SOMETHING TO DO" IN THE FINALE? DID IT REALLY AFFECT ANYTHING? ... AND DON'T GET HULK STARTED ON LEAVING THE EGGOS.

OKAY YOU GET IT. THIS IS A SHOW WHOSE BEST VALUE IN TERMS OF CRAFT IS A FONT CHOICE. BUT THE TRUTH IS A LOT OF TIMES THESE PROBLEMS EXIST IN SCRIPTS, ALBEIT LESS RAMPANTLY. THERE'S USUALLY SOME UNBUILT-TO MOMENTS. UNSURE DRAMATIC BEATS. CONFUSING CHARACTER PSYCHES. HULK CALLS THAT KIND OF WRITING "FIRST DRAFTY." BUT WHEN YOU DON'T OR CAN'T RECOGNIZE THE FIRST DRAFTY NATURE OF YOUR CORE PROBLEMS, WELL, THAT'S HOW YOU GET AN ENTIRE TELEVISION SHOW WITH THESE DEEP PROBLEMS WITHIN ITS ENTIRE STORYTELLING MODUS OPERANDI. WHICH LEAVES US WITH JUST ONE LAST BIG AND OBVIOUS QUESTION:

IF THE SHOW IS HAPHAZARD, WHY DID STRANGER THINGS STRIKE SUCH A CHORD?

LOOK, HULK'S NOT GOING TO GET INTO ANOTHER WHOLE THING ON THE FUNCTION OF THE NOSTALGIA BUTTON. AND TRUTHFULLY, THE SHOW'S USE OF NOSTALGIA ISN'T ACTUALLY ALL THAT NAKEDLY MANIPULATIVE, LARGELY BECAUSE WHAT IT AIMS FOR IN THAT REGARD IS ALSO VAGUE. BUT WHAT ELSE CAN YOU EXPECT FROM SOMETHING THAT ISN'T CAPTURING A PROPERTY BUT RATHER A TIME ITS CREATORS WISHED THEY LIVED IN? THE SHOW TAKES PLACE IN 1983. THE DUFFER BROTHERS WERE BORN IN 1984. YOU DO THE MATH. BUT AS WES ANDERSON BEAUTIFULLY ARTICULATED IN THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL WE ARE MOST OFTEN NOSTALGIC FOR A TIME WE NEVER KNEW. WE ALWAYS LOVE THE ALLURE OF WHAT WE JUST MISSED. AND HULK CAN GROK THAT TOO. IT'S PROBABLY EVEN A PART OF WHY HULK ADORES THE GET DOWN SO MUCH, FOR IT IS ABOUT A THING HULK MISSED OUT ON. BUT THERE IS SOMETHING DEEPER TO THIS PUZZLE BEYOND THE ALLURE OF MERE NOSTALGIA.

HULK KEEPS SAYING THE SHOW "MEANS WELL."

AND THAT'S VERY TRUE BECAUSE THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS OF DYSFUNCTION. AND STRANGER THINGS EXHIBITS MORE THE MERE APING AND POSTURING THAT YOU SEE IN A LOT OF CRAP HOLLYWOOD GENRE PIECES. NO, IT DOESN'T JUST WANT TO BE A NOSTALGIA BUTTON PIECE. IT WANTS TO BE SOMETHING THAT LOOKS BACK, BUT IS INDEPENDENT. IT GENUINELY WANTS TO BE DRAMATIC AND MOODY. IT WANTS COMPLICATED CHARACTERS. IT WANTS TO CAPTURE THAT '80S AMBLIN FUN. AS SUCH, EVERYTHING THE KIDS DO IS "AWESOME" AND EVERYTHING THE CHARACTERS DO AIMS TO BE A LITTLE BIT HUMANE...

IT JUST DOESN'T REALLY KNOW HOW TO DO IT. TO HULK, THIS SHOW'S STORY IS A MESS ON EVERY TECHNICAL LEVEL, AS NARRATIVELY HAPHAZARD AND WEIRD AS THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2... BUT THE ONE THING IT MAKES CLEAR IS THAT ITS HEART IS IN THE RIGHT PLACE. WHICH IS PROBABLY THE INSTINCTIVE REASON A LOT OF CRITICS WEREN'T INTO IT, BUT NEVER FELT THEY HAD TO TAKE IT DOWN AS A "BETRAYAL OF GENRE" OR SOMETHING OF THAT ILK. WHICH PROMPTS HULK TO ASK THE SERIOUSLY-FINAL LAST QUESTION OF ALL...

WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A SHOW'S HEART BEING IN THE RIGHT PLACE?

HULK'S NOT ENTIRELY SURE. THERE'S A COMFORT THERE THAT IS UNDENIABLE, AND IT CERTAINLY HELPS EXPLAIN WHY PEOPLE HAVE WARMED TO STRANGER THINGS TO THE DEGREE THEY HAVE. HULK TENDS TO ERR ON THE SIDE OF SUCH THINGS NOT LASTING (DEEP-SEEDED FAULTS IN A SHOW'S DNA TEND TO BECOME MORE GLARING WITH TIME), BUT THERE IS AN EXTENSION OF THIS STORY TO COME AND A WHOLE LOT WE WILL BE ABLE TO TELL THEN. AND ULTIMATELY, THE INHERENT VALUE OF BEING WELL-INTENTIONED IS SOMETHING WE PROBABLY HAVE TO DECIDE ON OUR OWN, AND OFTEN FOR OURSELVES.

BUT AS THEY SAY, THE PATH TO HELL IS PAVED WITH... WELL... YOU KNOW.

<3 HULK

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