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The X-Files

Stranger Things, Lost and the Sudden Left Turn

The latest season of Stranger Things, Netflix’s nostalgic 1980’s-set adventure, took an interesting left turn toward the end of its run. The second season had built on the first, continuing the story of a group of teenagers in Hawkins, Indiana, 1984, after they uncovered a conspiracy of government scientists awakening psionic powers within innocent children, with the express means of opening a doorway into the ‘Upside Down’, a dark, demonic reflection of our world. Arguably the breakout star was Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, an androgynous young girl raised by an amoral scientist she named ‘Papa’, before escaping and being taken in by teenager Mike and his party of 80’s geeks.

The Goonies meets The X-Files, right? That and about a dozen other touchstones, from Spielberg’s E.T. through to Stephen King’s Carrie. Eleven proved to be the character who leapt into the popular consciousness with a measure of innocent vulnerability and youthful verve, and it makes sense for creators The Duffer Brothers to give Eleven her own character journey across the second run, in far more of a pointed way than the rest of the ensemble. It’s through Eleven that we find an interesting narrative choice played out by the creators in the second to last episode.

Stranger Things season two operates in a logical manner, developing character arcs for the group – Dustin adopting a monstrous pet, Lucas’ teenage adoration for tomboy and new team member Max, Steve breaking out as the star of the second season, moving from popular jackass to true, underdog hero. So by the time we reach the end of the sixth episode, ‘The Spy’, the scene has very much been set for an epic climax to the story; Will is possessed by the ‘Mind Flayer’ shadow monster, Eleven discovers the truth about her mother and family past, and Hopper sees the government lab in Hawkins being to be invaded by legions of ‘Demi-gorgons’, the monster lap dogs of the Mind Flayer essentially. The first season had eight episodes yet season two has nine, simply for the fact the two-part climactic beat is forestalled in order to squeeze in an episode not originally part of the season tapestry – episode seven, ‘The Lost Sister’.

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Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

The Big Sick (2017)

Kumail Nanjiani is a comedian and writer much better known in the United States than in the UK, but he was familiar to me due to his association with my favourite TV series, The X-Files. Nanjiani famously hosted a successful podcast on the subject, The X-Files Files, which partly led him to gaining a guest starring role on a recent episode of the show’s revival. Nanjiani’s love of The X-Files is lightly referenced in The Big Sick, his debut feature as star and co-writer, in which he plays an extension of himself.

To an extent, Nanjiani playing Kumail is akin to Larry David’s extreme persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm or even Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s extensions in The Trip and its sequels, but the difference with The Big Sick is the tone. It’s one of the funniest comedies of the year, without question, but it’s also much sweeter, filled with charm and touching on a multitude of themes about relationships, societal barriers, religion and loss. How it manages to balance these disparate elements is the most impressive factor.

A major reason why perhaps comes down to the naturalism employed by Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter. The production stable of Judd Apatow lies behind the script which Nanjiani wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, and the story is theirs. Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) in the movie are the narrative version of the story of Nanjiani and the real-life Emily, which allows for a deeper sense of autobiographical honesty, fused with the kind of laid-back Americana comedy Apatow (when on form) does so well with his movies. The Big Sick, even before making you laugh, makes you feel.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.