'Stranger Things' Nightmare/Nostalgia in the "The Upside Down" Episode
The gang confront the creature in "The Upside Down" as Stranger Things season one draws to a close.
Stranger ThingsCast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobbie Brown, Caleb McLaughlin
Written and directed by series co-creators and showrunners The Duffer Brothers, the season one finale to Netflix's white hot summer series Stranger Things is more the culmination of the treacherous and emotion journey of its characters -- and a pivoting denouement -- than a stand-alone episode with its own intrinsic values. As I noted in my review for chapter seven, "The Bathtub" was a shortened episode high on the mechanical lead up to the finale, appropriately entitled "The Upside Down". Ideally, the two pair well together, as in watching them simultaneously does a lot more for each than separating the two. As distinct episodes, each is worth a bit less; conjoined in a single viewing, they work as a complete "10" in terms of emotional arcs and character payoffs.
"The Upside Down" opens with a mirroring shot to episode one, as a wide angle shot of the starlit night's sky descends peacefully down to the Department of Energy compound. This establishing shot has been a consistent one for the series, and represents a noticeable homage to Steven Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Given the dark and frightening tone "The Upside Down" takes, however, this opening shot is a closer mirror to the opening of John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 classic that bombed as a result of opening mere weeks after E.T. As season one's final chapter opens, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Habour) are being held in separate interrogation rooms. Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) works an interview angle on Joyce, while a team of agents taser and prep truth serum syringes for Hopper. Newly emboldened Pappa Hopper is done screwin' around, however; he's already stared into the non-human abyss and doesn't answer questions so much as call shots. Hop cuts a deal, whereas he'll exchange Eleven's (Millie Bobby Brown) whereabouts in exchange for a Hail Mary chance to descend into the Upside Down in search of Will’s (Noah Schnapp) dying body.
The post-credits immersion into the Upside Down is cleverly set up by an upside-down crane shot that slowly reverses and descends on to Joyce and Hopper. The two stand out of the darkness in bright yellow hazmat suits, colors accentuated by internal facemask lighting (a la Ridley Scott's Aliens, or his more recent prequel Prometheus). The Upside Down scenes are emotionally balanced with Hopper's flashback memories of losing his own daughter. He and Joyce wade through a frightening patch of icky clutter reminiscent of the Alien Queen’s lair, where they find Will strung up to a wall with a centipede-like tube running into his mouth and down his throat. Fortunately, machine guns still work in the Upside Down, and Hopper blasts the stringy organism to bits after they pull it out (right?!).
By episode's end, Joyce and Hopper do seemingly resuscitate Will, but it's a close call, and the emotional wham of how long it takes to locate him is felt. In terms of story pacing though, the dramatic rush to save Will works in opposition to scenes where the younger kids fight off the Demogorgon and ultimately (detailed spoilers to follow) lose El.
Set Strobe Levels to Stun
Back in '80s Indiana, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are done messing around as well. They head to the Byers residence and get to work setting death traps for the Demogorgon. The setup is organized in a vintage montage sequence that sets the stage for the finale's first climax. The setup is part-Evil Dead, part-Red Dawn, all parts '80s aesthetic. To cap the montage, in true blood bond fashion, Nancy and Jonathan simultaneously cut each other's hands to lure the creature in.
Sitting in the dark, a banging at the door startles the silence. It's Steve (Joe Keery) on his quest to redeem himself (martyr alert?). Nancy quickly lets him in, and just as they fight to explain the situation in short order, the multicolored bulbs begin twinkling in eerie fashion, heralding the horror to come. The trio closes quarters just before the monster breaks through the ceiling and onto the floor; however, when the group dive to the back bedroom, it disappears before any shots or traps go off.
They re-enter the living room (what are they gonna do, wait?) and all bets are off. Nancy forces Steve out the door (after he recites a subtly brilliant bit of hilarious Chevy Chase dialogue from National Lampoon's Vacation), but Steve returns just in time to strike a nail-filled bat into the Demogorgonn. Nancy empties her revolver into the creature as well, and their combined efforts lure it into the bear trap in the hallway. The entire sequence is set to strobe lighting between fired shots and the flickering Christmas backlighting. The strobe effect maximizes the intensity while also suggesting a kind of rural techno-horror.
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Hiding in the high school gym, Eleven, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) forage in the cafeteria for snacks. They end up gorging on pudding (Carl [Chandler Riggs] from The Walking Dead knows all about that!), but all of this is window dressing. The real shocker comes from Mike's gumption to step out of child mode and lay a despairing smooch onto El. The peck is sweetly weird and weirdly sweet, but the snacks and love connection end up short-lived when the agents storm the school. Once again, El conjures her power, this time psychically lobotomizing the entire hallway full of agents.
The gruesome collateral damage continues the finale's series of truly frightening visuals. The high school scenes heighten the horror affect by also relying on strobe light sequencing. Like the H.R. Giger-esque Upside Down, strobe horror effects borrow visual cues from Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens. The lighting meltdowns produce a sense of earth-shattering affect, the societal constructs of the artificial world failing or failing to protect the status quo. All is threatened within this liminal reality as it flickers to black and back again.
The dead agents' blood conjures the monster, and the otherworldly centaur appears. While its presence is horrific and fierce, El once again (yes again…and again) comes out of unconsciousness to save and protect her pals. Only this time, El distinguishes the creature and herself; her psychic power is resonant enough to seemingly eviscerate both beauty and beast. The two disintegrate in self-sacrificial fashion. Ripley would be proud.
Stranger Things: Epilogue
"The Upside Down" features a bookend epilogue entitled "One Month Later". The first of four scenes mirror the show's opening sequence with a return to the basement where the young male foursome finalize a hard-fought game of Dungeons & Dragons. Their camaraderie rejuvenated, Mike can't help but look back longingly at the corner tent-fort he made for El when she stayed there. The soft synthesizer score suggests both denouement and melancholy.
In a brokenhearted surprise twist, Natalie hand delivers a gift to Charlie -- a new camera! -- but the other shoe quickly drops when she returns to home to her family. Dad Ted (Joe Chrest) is passed out in his recliner (HAAA!) just as the camera pans over to Steve. Yes, "jerk Steve", once doomed to oblivion for his bully crimes but partially redeemed by newfound chivalry, has not only survived but maintains his relationship with Nancy. Brutal. The reveal hits heavy the first time viewing the episode, if only because audiences are trained by the '80s teen movie genre code to expect the reverse. Then again, this is TV. There's a certain acceptance to this wrinkle that's fresh and in step with the necessary tug-of-war heartstrings common among TV sitcoms.
Sheriff Hopper is going strong, puffing cigs in his dark hat, but also back in his officer uniform. In other words, he's finding the liminal balance between his dark and his light frequencies. Hopper cherry picks through snacks at the office Christmas party but quickly heads out. As the holiday anthem "Carol of the Bells" revs up, Hopper drives out to the edge of the forest, walks out to a remote hatch, and drops in the Tupperware container of snacks along with a saran-wrapped Ego waffle. In one of the more obscure film references, I'd argue the scene brings to mind 1985's criminally underrated Santa Claus: The Movie. Not to miss the point, Hopper is reversing the parental trend established under the Stranger Things '80s mileau: he's trying to parent the physically absent child.
The final scene returns to the Byers house, where Will, Charlie, and Joyce celebrate Christmas together. Joyce works to put a humble feast on the table but the food doesn’t seem to sit well with Will. He excuses himself to the bathroom momentarily where he **GASP!** coughs up and spits out a tiny alien slug. ("AAAHHHH!!!") This is followed by a kind of psychic experience where he seems to slip in and out of the realities of real-world and the upside down. As far as stingers go, this one hurts. It's a sad and scary end, quite bittersweet and ominous and open-ended in terms of where season two will extend.
Nostalgia Theory, Chapter Eight
Throughout these reviews, I've maintained a consistent effort to explore the role nostalgia plays in the making of and taking in of Stranger Things. A funny little thing happened along the way, as the homage straw that stirs this particular genre drink became an exhausted cultural practice in real-world terms. Hot on the heels of the record-shattering box office appeal (and repeal) of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nostalgic retread started to feel like incensed overkill by year's end. South Park made nostalgia a key narrative feature in its ridicule to both The Force Awakens' shortcomings as well as the ideologically empty rally cries of the political right.
As an oppositional allegory -- and true to the nature of how nostalgia actually functions -- what culture is left with is a stagnated sense of remoteness and loss; emotional fatigue for where things are and where they were. The magic potion of nostalgia is how it filters the past for present remembrance. I noticed this when Starz-Encore started running lots of '80s Stephen King movies once Stranger Things caught on. I DVR’d the likes of Firestarter and Pet Sematary, and while I enjoyed the feelings Stranger Things conjured by referencing those textual artifacts, it was another less enjoyable experience altogether to force myself to sit through them.
I also revisited E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at points in 2016. I must confess I got too sleepy to make it through either one. This isn't to say some movies have lost quality or luster; it could have everything to do with a very busy working schedule, children of my own, and the need to try to squeeze less important viewings in late at night at a time where I no longer have the virulent youth serum in me to stay up all hours of the night.
The only film I've been able to successfully stay awake re-watching and highly enjoy is The Thing. (I also made it through Santa Claus: The Movie after multiple restarts and decades since my last full viewing, but that's another story for anther time.) It could be entirely coincidental, or I've morphed from a Mike into a Hopper and my sensibilities are just that, changed.
I guess what I'm attempting to underscore in this melodious diatribe is that I'm using personal experience as a weighing mechanism for the rise-and-fall success of popular culture that's as amorphous as it is concrete with the experiences of others, and that always brings with it innate limitations. Thus, I return to the central thesis of nostalgia as a cultural compass. This is an issue, but it feels too fun to poke holes through. It's fleeting, both present in emotion and tethered to the past. Being aware of history and culture, appreciating its richness, and gaining wisdom and pleasure from such experiences is not the same thing as cosplaying the past as a full-time occupation of the present.
In case it's not clear, I'm in no way talking about dressing up as one’s favorite fiction at conventions, or the relentless pursuit of immersive experience by some fan cultures (which marketers and producers of all walks are back in front of, BTW), although I do read complete submission to such simulacral immersion strategies as counter-purposive and ultimately diabolical.
Let me simplify by saying that if nostalgia has become a de facto ruling retro pagan religion, then its followers need to make doubly sure the tenets of this belief set leads toward a productive future, which is opposition to an equally likely destructive downfall. If Stranger Things teaches us anything about the "real world", it's that the Upside Down nightmare that lurks beneath (or parallel) to ours is just one reality-altering explosion away from taking shape.