Stranger Things (Netflix)
Created by Matt and Ross Duffer
Stranger Things is an 8 episode series released by Netflix. It tells the story of the disappearance of Will Byers in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana and the bizarre phenomena that begins to occur around those affected. The series features an ensemble cast with David Harbour (The Newsroom) leading the cast as Sheriff Jim Hopper. Alongside Harbour are Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, the mother of the missing boy, Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Will’s best friend, and Millie Bobby Brown as a mysterious girl who know what happened to Will. The series is dripping in early 1980s nostalgia and plays out like a Stephen King novel or Spielberg film with a bit more darkness added.
The most noticeable aspect of the film is that it is firmly entrenched in creating an early 80s vibe. The title sequence’s music and visuals are tailored to mimic a dark synthy score of horror films and the font of a King novel cover. Because three of the series’ major characters are adolescent boys references to Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons abound. There’s more tonal and thematic touches that bring E.T., Poltergeist, Alien, and other period films to mind. In fact, this probably the show’s highest selling point, the recreation of the feeling of the childhood of many of its viewers. As a child of the 80s, I definitely felt it, probably not as much as someone who was a peer to the featured children would. I am curious how millennials view the series due to not having the nostalgic buy in. It’s also impossible not to think of Super 8, a very similar homage to the sci-fi/fantasy films of the day. Super 8 is definitely enamored with the Spielberg vein exclusively, while Stranger Things is willing to go to darker places and play with Stephen King and David Cronenberg territory.
The plot is not necessarily revolutionary. Because the show is a nostalgia trip, it weaves together ideas from a number of sources. I was pleasantly entertained by the twists and turns, and there are some predictable moments that don’t detract from the pleasure of watching. The key piece of the story, what took Will and where he is, were the most original parts. Thankfully, there is never a large chunk of exposition to explain away what is happening and the series requires the viewer to piece together segments of plot over time to have a full understanding. I appreciate that the show respected my intelligence enough not to have the central human antagonist sit down and lay out the plot to another character.
The characters and acting were a slightly mixed bag. First off, Millie Bobby Brown is going to be a major actress in the future, and honestly, already is in my opinion. I always say the best way to tell how good an actor is would be to watch them in a scene without dialogue and see how well they convey emotion without being over the top. Ms. Brown knocks every scene out of the park. She tells a rich, nuanced story through her face and her eyes. I learned she was part of a BBC America series called Intruders where her character is possessed by an older evil man and cannot wait to dig in and see how amazing she plays that. David Harbour does a better than expected job as Hopper. So often the role of town sheriff in these sorts of stories comes across as a paint by the numbers character. Hopper’s story adds a tragedy that is never played up too huge and is only highlighted at just the right moments. The character’s descent into paranoia as he comes closer to the truth is very entertaining and if a second season comes, I am interested to see how his character develops. Winona Ryder did not feel natural in many of her scenes. She basically plays one note, hysterical grieving mother for the majority of the series. That is what her character is going through but it would have been interesting so see some more of her. She definitely knows her character’s motivation and it guides her acting in every scene. The trio of young boys are wonderful and they each have a specific dynamic in the group that doesn’t come off as a checklist.
Stranger Things is a very fun series. I’ve enjoyed most of the 1980s nostalgia media and particularly like when it is done with an attention to tone over nitpicky details. It felt like watching a very long film from my childhood and it kept me hooked the whole way through. The series ends with a number of hooks for the second series but I won’t be disappointed if we don’t get another. These eight episodes are a complete, satisfying story, very much in the vein British television where each series attempts to close off its plot. Stranger Things is a perfect recreation of 1980s summer cinema that you can get lost in.