Doug Reviews: Stranger Things (2016)

If Stephen King and Steven Spielberg ever collaborated on a project, it would probably look a lot like Netflix’s latest original series, Stranger Things. Do the style pairing and inevitable nostalgia make for a great show or just an echo of past great works?

It’s 1983 and there are…strange things happening in Hawkins, Indiana. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has gone missing and his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), is beside herself. She goes to the Police Chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), and implores him to look into Will’s disappearance. Hopper is fairly certain it’s just a case of Will running away or at worst, a kidnapping by Joyce’s ex-husband, Lonnie (Ross Partridge). Will’s older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) has the same idea as Hop and goes to confront his father before searching the woods for clues. Meanwhile, Will’s friends—Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)—begin their own search for Will, and they come across a girl with special powers known only as Eleven (Millie Brown). As the search continues for Will, weird occurrences grow in frequency, centering on the fenced-off research lab guarded by armed officers and run by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). What happened to Will and what exactly is stalking Hawkins at night?

Stranger Things is a great throwback to the classic films of the 80s. It has everything with nods to E.T., Poltergeist, and Firestarter just to name a few. The thing is, though, these feel like loving homages instead of straight ripoffs, which was the case with a movie like Earth to Echo. Stranger Things confidently builds its own lexicon and world that will draw viewers in aside from all the warm feelings of nostalgia they’ll get from watching the series. The series’ creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, have painstakingly made a show that not only takes place in the 80s, but looks, sounds, and feels like it was created then as well. Stranger Things feels like someone went into an old producer’s vault and discovered it amongst other projects that never saw the light of day. There are a few missteps—some of the songs used weren’t exactly around in 1983, the most egregious examples being Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die,” and Mike’s Millennium Falcon toy is clearly a later generation model—but they don’t take away from the show’s brilliance. The show has a really nice mystery element that unfolds over the perfect amount of episodes (eight). The season never feels dragged out or too short. Another element that makes the atmosphere and the show as a whole a winner is the eerie synthesizer-heavy score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. It really sets the tone for the series and is the perfect accompaniment to the great pop songs that have been selected to fill out the show’s sound. The score is also pretty creepy, which bolsters the thriller and horror elements of the show. There are some quirky story moments that don’t fit seamlessly into the narrative and the design of the creature hunting around Hawkins could have been a bit more inspired, but these are small quibbles for what is a truly great show.

The cast is absolutely pitch-perfect and expertly cast by Casting Director Carmen Cuba. Ryder is the biggest name here and she does a great job as Will’s terrified mother who feels like she’s losing her mind as the search for her son drags on. She’s absolutely manic at times, but in flashbacks, it appears as if she was just able to hold it together and Will’s disappearance is the catalyst that pushes her over the edge. Harbour has been a great character actor over the years and in Hopper he has finally found his breakout role. All the young actors cast in the show are fantastic. The boys feel like real friends as they explore their nerdy interests like A/V Club and Dungeons & Dragons. The four of them have great chemistry. Modine is sinister without being hammy, which is even more terrifying. Heaton does well as Jonathan, playing him as someone who self-sacrifices, but also has his own weaknesses. Natalia Dyer is also great as Mike’s sister, Nancy, the smart girl who is dating Mr. Popular, Steve Harrington. Steve is played by Joe Keery, who has a nice little arc in this season. You expect one thing from him based on 80s movie tropes and by the end, you get something else. Despite all this great talent, the standout is Brown as Eleven. I can’t really explain just how great she is in this show without delving into a lot of spoilers, but just know that her character is completely traumatized and Brown captures all the fear and anxiety of that, while also effectively communicating the joy and excitement of making new friends.

Overall, Stranger Things is an absolute can’t miss. It’s a fantastic addition to Netflix’s stable of shows and a great throwback to the classic films of the 80s. If you ever wonder, “Why don’t they make them like classic Spielberg anymore?” and enjoy mystery, sci-fi, and horror, you’ll definitely enjoy Stranger Things.

 

Rating: A

All 8 Episodes of Stranger Things are now streaming only on Netflix

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