Take the kids from E.T. The Extraterrestrial, give one of them the sister from Pretty in Pink, have one of them abducted by the Beast from Poltergeist, and then put them all in the vicinity of the government facility from Firestarter, next you put that all in a blender hit puree and the result is the latest Netflix series Stranger Things, brought to us by the Duffer Brothers. This is an eight episode series that is a clear homage to the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg that will easily delight fans of those two artists, as well as several other genre artists that Matt and Ross Duffer throw nods to.
The release model for the Netflix series is the real game changer with the medium as you can now watch a series in whichever way best suits your needs; check out an episode a week at a time or binge watch the whole thing in one sitting. I prefer the latter in the case of Stranger Things as for me it worked best when considered as basically an eight hour movie. I really enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ love letter to Steven Spielberg with his film Super 8, but I did find that the ending resolution was a tad weak and it felt rather rushed. Now with shows like Stranger Things a filmmaker can take more time with their characters, introduce interesting plot threads, expand the world they’ve created, and all without being worried about how many show times a theatre can fit in a day.
The show opens with some standard science fiction thriller elements as we see a scientist madly scrambling down a dark hallway while something stalks him through the shadows, and in the classic Spielbergian method we don’t see the creature just the horrific look on the poor sods face as he’s grabbed by something off camera. Cut to a basement in small town 80s suburbia where the show’s true heroes are playing Dungeon & Dragons; Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) the stoic leader of the group, Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) the comic relief, Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) the sensible one, and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) the boy who disappears that night while returning home from their heated gaming session.
Devastated by the disappearance of her son is Joyce Byers (Wynona Ryder), who seems to be going off her rocker as she insists that her son is trying to contact her through the Christmas lights she strings all over the house, but we saw the creature chasing after young Will so we know things aren’t as cut and dried as they appear and that she is far from crazy. Her eldest son Jonathon Byers (Charlie Heaton) is a bit of a social outcast but it’s his search for his little brother that throws him in contact with Mike’s teenage sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) has also gone missing, but surprisingly no one seems all that concerned about her.
The handling of Barb’s disappearance is one of the weaker elements of the show as she is introduced, hangs around for a couple of episodes and then she is gone without a sense of anybody but Nancy being worried about her. We get one shot of Nancy talking to Barb’s mother on the phone but then the mother is never to be heard from again. This is the 80s and a teen-age girl vanishing would still be a big deal, no matter how hard a shadowy government facility tried to cover it up. Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) reluctantly gets involved with the investigation of the missing Byer’s kid, he has serious emotional issues due to the loss of his own daughter, but apparently daughters belonging to other people are not as big of a concern to him so he doesn’t give poor Barb a second thought. Sheriff Brody he is not.
Speaking of “Shadowy Government” it’s time to mention the show’s primary bad, and I don’t mean the monster in the dark that is snatching children from their homes, but a monster of a more insidious nature, the Mad Scientist. Doctor Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) is your stock evil doctor and unfortunately the Duffer Brothers do nothing to flesh out this stereotype, and rely mostly on Matthew Modine’s white hair to doing the work for them. One look at him and you’d scream, “Evil!” and run in the opposite direction. When he tells Nancy’s mom to “Trust him” I burst out laughing.
Not only does Dr. Brenner want to keep a lid on the whole “A monster has escaped from our facility and is preying on the locals” but he is searching for a second escapee who just so happens to be a little girl with extraordinary powers. She is known only by her designation “11” which is tattooed on her arm, and in case we hadn’t quite got the gist of how evil Brenner is we learn that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is also his daughter, and she’s been treated as a lab experiment her entire life. After escaping the facility, keeping just one step ahead of her father’s goons, she eventually runs into our group of young heroes who were out hunting for Will. Much to the shock of the group Mike decides to take her home and hide her in the basement of his house. Now I couldn’t even keep a squirrel hidden in my house without my mom finding out about it so I’m not sure how they kept an almost autistic girl with superpowers hidden for days with no one noticing. Well maybe if my squirrel had super powers it would have been easier.
Stranger Things is all about movie nostalgia, and if you can get aboard the nostalgia train you are going to have fun, but if the constant nods and references to the works of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and others becomes a bit too obtrusive your level of enjoyment may vary. I enjoyed the “homages” to the greats of the genre, but the show does have it’s minuses as well as it positives. The time spent with the kids being the most fun, with them teaming up with Eleven (who they name Elle for short) as they try and locate their missing friend while avoiding her father and his passel of armed goons. On the other hand the time spent with the relationship drama between Nancy, Jonathon and Nancy’s boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) I could have done with a little less of, but at least it does go in an interesting direction so that is just a minor peeve.
For the most part these characters react and behave like believable people, I certainly hope I would handle myself as well against such threats as these kids do, but there were a couple of moments that did lose me as they strained credulity a bit too far. **Minor Spoilers** At one point Nancy and Jonathon are hunting through the woods at night for the monster that took Will and Barb (right there something I wouldn’t do without heavily armed back-up), then while following a blood trail across the forest floor Nancy comes across a pulsating fleshy hole in a tree (something right out of a David Cronenberg movie), and without even calling out to Jonathon she crawls inside. Who in the hell would do that? I don’t think even a fully armed Navy Seal would have even considered such an insane action. The other moment I had a hard time swallowing was that Chief Hopper attempts to infiltrate the government facility twice! Does he have a plan as to how to pull off such a feat? Nope, and at least the Duffer Brothers treat his stupidity with the proper result, but I still felt it was a case of a character behaving in a way simply because “It’s in the script” and not for any logical reason. Though this does lead to him ending up wandering around Silent Hill so I’ll forgive it.
Stranger Things is a brilliant mix of nostalgia and dark mystery, with a good helping of horror that got woke the kid in me. I grew up watching John Carpenter’s Thing and Poltergeist where it seemed at any moment horror could strike and ruin your whole day whether you were in the Antarctic or in suburbia, and the Duff Brothers captured that feel brilliantly here. This is a show I can recommend highly and suggest you set aside time to binge watch it.
Stranger Things: Season One
The Duff Brothers clearly have a love for the material and it shows through every moment of this series. The cast is fantastic, the kid actors are especially amazing, and the thrill and chills are everything one could hope from such a project. Here’s hoping that season two keeps up the quality.