The Following review contains mild spoilers
Do yourself a favor and check out Netflix’s outstanding new original series Stranger Things. Created by the Duffer Brothers (Ross and Matt), Stranger Things is an unapologetic throwback to 80s sci-fi and adventure movies like E.T., Aliens, Stand By Me, The Explorers, The Goonies, and countless others. Many of the aforementioned genres’ familiar elements are present: a fantastical event occurs, bullies terrorize our heroes, families are fractured, parents are clueless, walkie-talkies are used to communicate, and suburban kids evade government officials on their bikes. While Stranger Things won’t win any prizes for originality, it succeeds on its own merits as a tremendously engrossing retro adventure that is perfect for binge watching. In other words, it’s nirvana for anybody seeking good old-fashioned storytelling.
The story begins on the night of November 6, 1983 at a government facility in Hawkins, Indiana. A terrified man in a lab coat races through the facility’s dimly lit hallway to an elevator while an alarm blasts. The man looks above and a bellowing creature violently takes him. Something strange is occurring in this normally innocuous town.
Meanwhile, a quartet of 12-year old boys, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp), are completing a 10-hour Dungeons and Dragons campaign in Mike’s basement. The boys proceed to head their separate ways home on their bikes, but a scary supernatural force confronts Will and he subsequently vanishes.
The next morning, Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and his older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) discover he’s missing. They are understandably shaken by his disappearance, so they enlist help from Hawkins’ troubled police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour).
After Will fails to show up at school the next day, his pals decide to investigate his disappearance. While searching for him in the nearby woods, they meet a frightened girl with a buzz cut (Millie Bobby Brown). The girl calls herself “Eleven” and the boys soon discover that she has telekinetic powers and may have information on Will’s whereabouts. Does she have ties to the government facility?
Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) also becomes involved in the proceedings. She’s a brainy beauty who is dating the school’s popular bad boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). After Nancy’s classmate disappears, she teams up with the brooding Jonathan to go monster hunting.
With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers unabashedly reference and pay homage to the movies they grew up loving—the awe-inspiring adventure of Steven Spielberg, the horror of Stephen King and John Carpenter, and the high school politics of John Hughes. Nostalgic projects like this can often collapse under the weight of their references, but Stranger Things is more than just a collection of 80s greatest hits. The story moves along at a brisk pace and is relentlessly exciting, culminating in a bloody final act that is well worth the extensive buildup. The monster terrorizing the town is cleverly conceived and genuinely scary. The Duffer Brothers have a deft hand for creating tension; their construction of the “Upside Down,” a ghastly place encased in gooey webbing and bursting with floating ash, is inspired. But most importantly, the characters are charming and emotions are earned. Stranger Things never comes across like a half-hearted retread, but instead a loving tribute that feels more like something made during the pre-internet and cell phone era than in 2016. Luckily, there are not any scenes where the boys search for Pokémon on their smartphones. I don’t think I will ever be nostalgic towards that.
The talented young cast anchors the show. The actors are all outstanding and very believable, behaving like real kids. I instantly bought the notion that they’re close friends, especially when they bicker. The standouts are Millie Bobby Brown’s portrayal of the laconic and enigmatic Eleven and Gaten Matarazzo’s turn as the funny yet pragmatic Dustin. While Eleven’s behavior and motivations are often obstinately frustrating, Brown commands the screen with an assured performance. Eleven has a specific set of skills and her confrontations with the “mouth breathers” bullying her new friends is one of the show’s many highlights. Matarazzo is a very natural actor with crack comic timing and his character turns out to be the most levelheaded of the bunch. The teenage actors, especially Dyer, are effective; however, the ensuing love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan is the likely to induce eye-rolls and is probably the show’s weakest link.
Stranger Things separates itself from many of the movies it references, by giving its adult characters something meaningful to do. While Mike and Nancy’s parents are oblivious to much of the show’s plot (though I did enjoy the dad’s blind trust of the U.S. Government), Will’s mother Joyce and Chief Hopper more than pick up the slack. Winona Ryder is well cast as the chain-smoking, conspiracy theorist, grieving mother. Her claims of communicating with Will via Christmas lights hanging in her dilapidated house would even make Homeland’s Carrie Mathison shake her head incredulously. In lesser hands this character would be grating, but Ryder makes it work with her committed performance, showing improved dramatic range, that was not evident in her Heathers era heyday. David Harbour’s Jim Hopper is more of a well-rounded character, terse yet compassionate, haunted yet resourceful. Harbour succeeds in lending humanity to this small-town cop seeking redemption. Matthew Modine is equally as effective as Dr. Brenner, a white-haired scientist with unclear motives.
As for the ancillary characters, I liked the boys’ helpful teacher Mr. Clarke (Randall P. Havens). There is a particularly amusing sequence when Dustin interrupts his teacher’s date on a Saturday night so he can rack his brain on sensory deprivation tanks. Life sure was a struggle before Wikipedia. Additionally, I wish more screen-time was given to Nancy’s friend Barb (Shannon Purser), rocking oversized glasses and mom jeans while dishing out the hard truths about teenage relationships. Rock on, Barb!
Stranger Things’ also benefits from an exceptional soundtrack loaded with an assortment of 80s hits. Joy Division, The Clash, Jefferson Airplane, New Order, and Foreigner provide songs from the era and Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the Austin based synth-wave band survive, handle the score. Dixon and Stein’s analog synthesizers set an eerie tone, seamlessly complementing the show’s macabre atmosphere. The duo has deservedly seen their popularity soar since the show’s debut.
The first season runs only eight episodes, but it’s the ideal length. The story is given proper room to breath without getting bogged down by excessive exposition. Fortunately, Netflix recently green-lit a second season, which will follow the characters on a new adventure. I’m interested to see what the Duffer Brothers come up with to continue the story. Hopefully season two is as wildly entertaining as this terrific first chapter.
***1/2 out of ****
featured image courtesy of netflix