A heartfelt loveletter to 80’s Cinema
The 80’s were a crazy, supersonic era of bright lights, loud music and even louder fashion styles. Even though I was born at the tail end and didn’t actually experience it first hand, I, like I’m sure many others did, spent a lot of the 90’s indulging in all the awesomeness the previous decade provided. If I wasn’t playing video games, I was likely tracking down pirate treasure with The Goonies, creeping through claustrophobic ships infested with Aliens, or being glued to the TV while watching others get sucked in during Poltergeist.
These are of course just a few examples out of the many classic 80’s movies I loved watching, and it would seem The Duffer Brothers were doing the same, since Stranger Things is jammed full of more callbacks and references then an 80’s themed trivia night. So, as a child of the 90’s who lived vicariously through the 80’s by soaking up all I could find, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face through all 8, thrilling episodes of this new Netflix Original series.
The show starts off innocent enough, with our focal characters sitting around a table playing an intense game of D&D, (Dungeons & Dragons) a scene that serves its purpose to introduce each of them as the tropes they are. We have Mike, the awkward but likable leader. Dustin, the toothless funny-talking outcast in the group of outcasts. Lucas, the short-tempered loudmouth. And last but not least we have Will, the shy and innocent one. This scene not only highlights the believable dynamic and chemistry these kids have with each other, but also acts as proper foreshadowing to the stranger things to come. I have to say, these kids are not only fantastic actors for their age, but put to shame many adult actors that have somehow made a career for themselves. And as a side note, if The Goonies 2 ever actually happens, THESE are the kids we’ve been looking for. Get on it now Hollywood, before any of them turn into adult Corey Feldman.
Each of the 8 episodes, after making its way past the nostalgically awesome 80’s-styled intro, does a great job at balancing each character we’ve met as well as introducing new ones that serve the plot, although some succeed in that more than others. From the down-and-out Sheriff with a haunted past of his own, to the parents that just don’t understand, almost all of them get wrapped up in the growing conspiracy that this otherwise quiet little town is being overcome by.
At the center of it all is our hero, a girl simply known as Eleven who’s as equally damaged as she is damaging, thanks to her telekinetic powers.The mystery behind this character is one of a few major plot points of the season and would easily be the most interesting aspect if not for the whole multidimensional child eating monster roaming about. That’s right, as if sketchy shadow science labs of Umbrella proportions and pint sized Jean Greys weren’t enough to deal with, there’s a Lovecraftian nightmare creature under this melting pot of madness.
All of the above act as solid motivation to binge watch to the end but the aspect that may have held my attention most was simply how well each character played off one another and dealt with the scenarios they found themselves in. I enjoyed seeing the main group of boys band together in the vein of Stephen King’s IT and decide to head straight to the source of the horror, with nothing but hope and slingshots to save them. Meanwhile, Mike’s sister Nancy and Will’s brother Jonathan, who start out as skeptical observers, find themselves increasingly entrenched in the insanity to the point where fighting back becomes their only option. There is one scene in particular involving them that I found very reminiscent of the original A Nightmare on Elm St. Given that the main teenage girl, Nancy, shares the same name as that film’s savior, I’d speculate that parallel isn’t mere coincidence. While most of the adults in town seem content with turning a blind eye to everything, there’s one who has no choice but face it all head on, and that’s Will’s mom, played by Winona Ryder.
Ryder gives one the best performances I’ve seen from her in a long while and steals plenty of scenes with her (justifiably) over-the-top enthusiasm. She’s not alone with giving an applaudable performance though, since I’d honestly say almost everybody does an outstanding job in their roles. The boys all have a genuine likability to them and you always want to see them overcome whatever they’re facing, be it real monsters or imaginary. Smaller characters, like Steve, Nancy’s sleazy “cool guy” boyfriend and his merry band of yes men are irritating and punch-worthy, but that’s the idea, so in that regard they’ve succeeded as well.
Matthew Modine, of Full Metal Jacket fame, portrays the lead scientist who created Eleven. His performance is easily the least energized of the lot but his suppressed humanity helps sell his character’s hollow, disconnected nature and clear lack of morals. The town’s sheriff, played by David Harbour, manages to breathe life into a character who seems content on having no life at all, and the way his dark past links to giving the central victim a brighter future is done very well. The young girl who plays Eleven, Millie Bobby Brown, is without a doubt the standout actor, delivering real emotion during some seriously horrific scenes as well the more upbeat ones involving the other kids. Much of this is done with few words or purely through body language, which is truly a testament to her immense talent.
There really wasn’t a whole lot to take issue with throughout, and due to how enthralling the plot and characters are, the things that don’t hold up as much are far easier to forgive. The weakest aspects other than a few uninteresting characters, like Mike’s parents, are some questionable to downright poor-looking CGI effects. Still, a fair share of the special effects look good, helped mostly by some smart lighting and camera tricks. The story may be shrouded in mystery but by the end almost everything is answered or concluded in a satisfying manner, and the parts left open were clearly intentional.
With that said, even with a few stones left unturned I feel the series could stand on its own and if another frame of the show were never filmed, I’d be ok with that. I see the cliffhanger-esque ending as yet another nod to things like Tales from the Crypt, Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark?, since all those shows/books usually ended with things seemingly wrapped up only for one last scare to keep you wondering…what if? The only “what if” I’ll leave you with though, is what if you decide not to watch Stranger Things? Well, nothing will happen I’m sure, but you’ll be missing out on a fun, superbly crafted show. So, if you’re a fan of the genre or someone who just misses 80’s style sci-fi horror and adventure movies, the only thing stranger would be the decision to pass it up.