Netflix’s newest original series series is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Hollywood has hit the nostalgia button hard lately, falling back on on old characters and stories while trying to give them a modern polish. The well of ideas has seemingly dried up in Tinseltown. Fewer risks and an emphasis on guaranteed brand-name properties have all but consumed the multiplexes. In a summer movie season plagued by countless remakes, sequels, and reboots, television continues to provide the most daring, original, and groundbreaking entertainment being produced today. Leave it to streaming giant Netflix to jump on this nostalgia bandwagon and give it a much needed boost of originality in producing Stranger Things — a love letter to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and general 80’s awesomeness.
While this new series proudly wears its clear influences on its sleeve, it tells its own tightly-focused story straddling the delicate line between the familiar and the new. Stranger Things is a celebration of American entertainment’s cultural past and a reminder of how fun these types of genre-bending stories can be.
As written by the Duffer brothers (who have seemingly come out of nowhere), Stranger Things tells the story of 12-year-old Will Byers, who mysteriously vanishes after an evening of playing Dungeons and Dragons with his oddball set of best friends. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) frantically begs Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) to investigate her son’s disappearance as Will’s friends set out on their own to search for their missing friend. But instead of Will, they find a mysterious girl named Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) who appears to be gifted with supernatural powers.
From here, the narrative twists and turns through everything from mysterious government conspiracies to monsters lurking in the darkest of dreams. The series successfully blends multiple genres together to create a binge-worthy story that never loses its focus or sense of identity. And at just eight episodes, the Duffer Brothers exhibit a masterful control of their narrative, avoiding the filler that plagues its longer brethren. By the time the finale is over, the story feels complete (with just enough room left for a potential second season), which says a lot in this age of padding out series in favor of maximum profit.
The thing that makes Stranger Things so striking from its first moments is its authenticity — not the 80’s as they actually were, but how we remember them. It’s more than a cute cinematic wink; instead, Stranger Things envelopes itself in its world and culture. There are many beats here that are lifted right out of a Spielberg movie or the writings of Stephen King, but they feel fresh and natural because of the showrunners’ understanding and adoration of the era in which that material thrived. In a way, the Duffer Brothers have managed to turn the 80s into a distinct filmmaking style as every piece fits together seamlessly from the opening titles, casting, writing, music, cinematography, art direction, etc. Nothing feels out of place or self-aware. These characters simply exist in this reality.
Instead of leaning on nostalgia as a crutch, it’s a reminder of how brave we use to be with our storytelling and how genre filmmaking used to be the king of the summer movie season. The 80’s gave us E.T., The Thing, Tron, Blade Runner, Aliens, Gremlins, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Raiders of Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Die Hard. Today we have Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men Apocalypse, and a remake of Ghostbusters. The stark difference in quality and originality is downright depressing.
Casting Director Carmen Cuba has done a remarkable job putting together an ensemble of kids and adults who play off each other with a beautifully heightened naturalism. There are some familiar 80’s faces here, with both Matthew Modine and Winona Ryder having prominent roles. Ryder in particular shines in what could easily have been a one-note character; she provides Joyce with a palpable sense of grief and hysteria and manages to find a hundred different shades therein. It’s a testament to her skills as an actor that her manic qualities do not compromise her passion or empathy. You can feel her heartbreak pouring through the screen. It’s a wonderful return to to the spotlight for Ryder that should renew interest in her career. Modine doesn’t get to do much other than look evil as shady government agent Dr. Brenner, but he quietly commands the screen whenever he appears. As Chief Hopper, David Harbour –long overdue for a star-making role — is introduced as appropriately gruff and reserved, but as his character opens up in later episodes Harbour manages to convey a wealth of backstory and emotion with the subtlest of line readings.
The quartet of preteen boys are genuine finds, with Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), and Noah Schnapp (Will) oozing genuine chemistry as best friends. Their interactions are often the comic highlights of Stranger Things, but there is a lot of heart driving their performances. Their bond is the glue that holds together the show’s supernatural narrative. Natalie Dyer, Charlie Heaton, and Joe Keery, as (respectively) Mike’s sister, Will’s brother, and Nancy’s boyfriend, all deserve special mention for subverting what could have been a cliche-ridden “high school love triangle” B-story. Once all of the characters’ investigations begin to intertwine, these relationships pay off in surprising ways.
The real acting revelation of Stranger Things, however, is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is trusted with an extremely difficult role, often having to communicate a lot of information without the aide of dialogue. Eleven is taken on a whirlwind emotional journey filled with fear, anger, strength, compassion, and even love. And Brown attacks the role vigorously, displaying a potent mix of wonder and vulnerability that would have made her one hell of a Spielberg kid actor. That this seemingly frail-looking little girl can command such strength on the screen is one of the great surprises of Stranger Things. It’s a performance well beyond her years that should garner her plenty of recognition. Risking hyperbole, a star is born.
The reason Spielberg became such a filmmaking sensation in the late 70’s and early 80’s is because he was able to create escapist entertainment that audiences could still relate to. His worlds felt grounded in the suburban culture of the times even as fantastical events swirled around the margins. The Duffer Brothers, despite being born the year after the series is set (in 1983), are just as in tune with that time and its people. Our culture is currently entrenched in fear and constant worry for our future. It’s no surprise, then, that superheroes saving the day and big explosions with empty narratives drive our box office. Stranger Things is a return to a time of genre storytelling where we weren’t afraid to explore and embrace the unknown. For those who miss those stories, Stranger Things is the best thing you will see all summer, and perhaps the whole year.