TL;DR – Engaging, Emotional, Tense, and about the most 80s thing you could ever watch, but boy should you ever watch it.
Score – 4.5/5 Stars
Stranger Things is a weirdly wonderful TV show, it is a complex web of 80s references, homages to films of that era, and call backs to the classics of the horror genre. All of that could have been done as a ham-fisted cash grab, banking on nostalgia over substance, *cough* Transformers *cough*, instead it is a well-crafted story with real talent, both in front and behind the camera, that draws you in at every moment. Now as I am reviewing the entire season at once there will undoubtedly be spoilers ahead, so if you have not seen Stranger Things yet, beware, and maybe come back once you have watched it.
To catch people up, Stranger Things is set in 1983 and takes place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. Here a group of friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp) who are outcast from the rest of the school because children can be cruel, heartless, hell spawn who … sorry went off topic there, where was I, oh yes … the group meet up to have weekly Dungeon and Dragons sessions. One fateful night at the same time the boys are finishing up a game all hell breaks loose at the secret government facility hidden in town as an electric company. The only warning is a problem with the lights and TV, so as everyone rides home there is nothing to let them know that something very, very bad has escaped into our world. As thus the series is trusted forward with the mystery of The Vanishing of Will Byers.
Now if you don’t want to know any more of the story other than the opening snippet you might want to watch the show and come back, for ever one else. Stranger Things’ story has a lot of good things going for it, firstly it is supported by a really great setting. The time is really important, as it is set after the collapse of the Détente and the re-ignition of the Cold War, and the US government was funnelling millions of dollars into some really shady research. It also means that Stranger Things can hit that 80s nostalgia, and they don’t pull any punches or do only a superficial job with the setting, they hit that nostalgia hard. Also, the setting allows for there to be more than one thing happening, more than one bad guy, and an unclear notion of patriotism v knowledge. The setting is only one part of what makes a good story, you then need to populate it with strong actors, which they do, and then you have to craft a strong narrative and that is where Stranger Things shines. As far as the narrative goes, it clearly pays homage to a number of cult classics of the time, whilst still being its own story. So on the one hand, if you are familiar with the genre some of the surprises will probably not really be surprised, indeed like what happens to the guy who finds 11 (Millie Bobby Brown). However, just because there are those moments of familiarity, does not mean you will be able to chart the whole course of the show from just the first episode, which you can for so many of its contemporaries. There are some real moments of tension, gut-wrenching emotion, and wonderfully it tells a story full of horror without resorting to jump scares to artificially increase that tension. Part of what helps sell the story is the human reactions to the unfolding crisis, nothing feels forced, people act (with maybe the exception of the government goons) like they would, given the situation. As well as this, the eight episode mini-series is a good length for a show like this, because it doesn’t faff around, nor outstay its welcome.
Now while my students might think that I am ancient, this show is actually set before I was born, so that nostalgia does not really work on me, but I really respect the attention to detail, and the time and effort the set designers, prop masters, and costumers put into crafting this show. Everything feels that it is in the right time frame, from the clothes people wear to the cars they drive, to the town itself. The thematic design on the other world is really interesting, I liked how they used particulate matter in the atmosphere to clearly delineate the two realms. While the monster didn’t quite live up to the image you had in your minds from the snippets you see over the course of the show, it’s not really a problem because no monster ever does. Though I would say with the use of lights throughout the season, there should almost be a warning for photosensitive epileptics, because there is a lot of flashing bulbs. All of this is wonderfully accompanied by probably the best period soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy, not just in the song choice, but the instrumental score as well, which encapsulates that time with its use of synthetic tones, I mean look at those opening titles and tell me that does not send you right back to that time.
One of the core strengths of this film is the acting, and I am all on board this trend of TV becoming the place for high concept professionally executed media. For a cast that is mostly made up of young actors there is always the potential for the lack of experience to undercut the show, but wow does this young cast just nail every scene they are in, with a level of professionalism that you don’t often see in their adult contemporaries. For example, Millie Bobby Brown shows such a range with 11, from a scared child all alone, to a powerful don’t mess with me, and everything in between. Another powerful portrayal is Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, but her grief and turmoil were heartbreaking to watch, and that determination when she knows that her son is alive just from the sound of his breath and no one else believes her is such a strong moment. All the acting in Stranger Things is top notch, and this gives the show the power to excel.
Overall I really loved Stranger Things, and generally speaking, I don’t like the horror genre because it has the habit of just being rinse repeat with a different bad guy. However, here’s a show with real heart, with real grief, and real tension. If you have Netflix then you really should give this show a look, I highly recommend it.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Duffer Brothers (Chapter 1,2,5,6,7&8), Shawn Levy (Chapter 3&4)
Written by – Duffer Brothers (Chapter 1,2&8), Jessica Mecklenburg (Chapter 3), Justin Doble (Chapter 4&7), Alison Tatlock (Chapter 5), Jessie Nickson-Lopez (Chapter 6) & Paul Dichter (Chapter 8)
Staring – Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Shannon Purser, Cara Buono & Matthew Modine