Riding the waves of nostalgia, Netflix gives us a thrilling take on 80s sci-fi and horror tropes, with a well-paced story and an endearing cast. At its heart, this is a tale of loyalty and the power of pre-adolescent friendship, but underneath it all there is something far darker and more perverse that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The modern era seems to be rife with nostalgia. There is a Ghostbusters reboot, a new take on the classic Jumanji, a sequel to the greatest film ever made – Blade Runner. And that is just the news from the last 18 months. A couple of years ago we had the 80s inspired masterpiece that was Drive by the excruciatingly inconsistent Nicolas Winding Refn. We’ve had reboots of Paul Verhoevan’s brutal works; Robocop and Total Recall. Others include the Karate Kid, Evil Dead, Red Dawn, and many, many more. Most of these have been unsuccessful, and the main reason for that is because they have failed to grasp the fundamental emotions and atmosphere that made their 80s counterparts so great. Stranger Things is a different beast altogether. While it is not a direct remake of anything singular IP, it is an amalgamation of the best of what made 80s films so great, while at the same time carrying its own unique modern stamp.
The series starts with Will, one of a group of friends who play Dungeons and Dragons in their spare time, taking a shortcut home after one of their marathon session late in the evening, going past a top-secret government facility. On this journey he disappears after coming in to contact with a mysterious entity. After this his distraught mother, Joyce (played by Winona Ryder), helped by the local Sheriff and her eldest son, lead a desperate search to find him. At the same time Will’s friends, led by the affable Mike, carry out their own investigation that brings them in to contact with the innocent, but apparently dangerous, Eleven, a girl at the centre of a hunt by the occupants of the top-secret government facility.
Let me just get my one main grievance out of the way. This film wears its tributes and inspirations on its sleeve, proud for everyone to see. The only issue is that many of these tributes are so heavy handed that they no longer become clever background details, but are instead derivative of their source material. E.T seems to be the biggest victim of this, especially in two scenes that are stolen straight from the classic, and just placed in a slightly different context. One of these involves a subplot where Mike tries to hide Eleven from his parents and dresses her up (wig included), while another involves Eleven constructing an escape from government officials in a very familiar fashion. I loved the 80s (although I’m going to be controversial here and state that, in my opinion, E.T is one of the most overrated films of all time), but I think subtlety should have been key here. Everyone likes a touch of nostalgia every now and again, but the Duffer Brothers are occasionally too heavy handed with their offerings.
This series is all about the younger actors. They are genuinely incredible, especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who manages to make a little go a long way. She may not have much to say, but the troubled way in which she says it conveys the idea that she has seen some true horrors in her short life. There are scenes where she conjures apparently genuine horror when faced with situations that would render grown adults gibbering wrecks. There is so much intensity in her performance that it is almost disturbing to witness someone so young endure what she does on screen. For the most part I would say this series is a good watch for all the family, but then when you see the torture that the young protagonist goes through, it might be worth keeping the younger family members away from the screen. It is truly a compliment to each of the other young actors that they can hold their own when on screen with her, and Finn Wolfhard is both endearing and engaging as the nerdy Mike, de facto leader of the rag tag group of misfits.
On the whole, the older actors do a good job of keeping up with the younger stars, and it is especially nice to see some of the 80s relics joining in with the nostalgia. Matthew Modine, of Full Metal Jacket, is eerily insidious as the manipulative head of the shady government faction. He is a consistent narrowed eyed, creepy smiled antagonist, and that is all he needs to draw us in. And while David Harbor may not be an 80s alumni, he is excellent as the Sheriff of the town, drawn in to a plot that is full on lunacy. His gradual comprehension of the truth is conveyed in such a stuttering way that you applaud the hardy manner in which he takes it in his stride. He may start off passive-aggressive and a bit of an arsehole, but over time you will embrace his cynicism and pity his new role in the conspiracy. Winona Ryder, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. All she managed to do for the first half of the series is convey varying degrees of anxiety (even before her son disappears) and her lack of strength comes across as extremely grating. This does change and develop more as the episodes progress, but she is in no way the stand out that you might expect her to be.
Now that we have gone over the human aspect of the show, it is time to delve in the shadier underbelly of the plot. There is a horror here that has been missing from both the big and small screen for some time. Once again the odes to the 80s are evident, from Carpenter’s The Thing, to the many works of Steven King. The Upside Down, the darker parallel dimension of our own world, is a grim visage of slimy tentacles, ashen debris, and moss laden floors. And the creature, when it is revealed to us, is a long limbed, eyeless terror that will dredge up memories of long forgotten nightmares where you were chased ceaselessly by an unrelenting force. The production design of this world is incredible, and is one of those factors that will keep you from allowing any younger children from viewing this creepy thriller.
There is one other minor downfall to this first series, and that is the lack of surprise. Too much is revealed to the viewer too soon. We learn so many important facts long before the characters in the show and that takes away some of the edge and mysticism. Yes this series is seriously creepy at times, but the intensity could have been ramped up that bit more by just withholding a little more for a little longer. It seems the fear of creating something too slow-burning led to the spoon feeding of the audience. However, there is enough here to keep you engaged until the very end, and then keep you enticed by the idea of a second season.
Netflix has once again delivered its subscribers with an excellent, unique TV show. The calibre of young actors drives forward a seriously eerie story about the friendship between youngsters and the lengths they will go to for each other. With the exception of some heavy-handed references and a little too much spoon feeding to the audience, there is enough here that will keep you gripped until the very last minute of the last episode, and keep you wanting more.