The recent premiere of the Netflix produced series Stranger Things is a throwback and homage to 80s cinema and clearly inspired by the work of seminal filmmakers of that period. It harks back to the sparse scares of science fiction in the decade built on Spielberg, Cronenberg, and Lynch genre cinema – as well as no small amount of Stephen King.
Taking place in small-town Indiana, 1983, Stranger Things’ setting is as much its fabric as it is its scenario. The accuracy with which Stranger Things writers and creators — The Duffer Brothers — recreate not just the body, but the soul of works like E.T., The Goonies, The Gate, Scanners and IT goes beyond any simple observation of visual style.
It’s a series that harks back to character, adventure, horror, friendship and warmth.
If you haven’t already binge-watched all eight episodes of the first series, here are five reasons why you should.
A group of kids have an encounter with the supernatural
The series is about a group of preteens — mostly boys — who encounter something slightly terrifying (all the better to reference the canon of 80s films from Speilberg). In this case, the slightly terrifying “something” is a strange monster that comes from an alternate dimension the kids call the “Upside Down.” The monster captures one of them in the first 15 minutes of the first episode, and the rest of the season deals with trying to rescue him.
The central kids are pretty stock standard best friends. There’s Mike (Finn Wolfhard), the leader, the kid who is slowly figuring out his own charisma and smarts. There’s Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), the group’s pudgy soul. And there’s Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), the group’s idealist and, consequently, occasional hothead.
And of course there’s a girl. But in keeping with the genre, the girl has superpowers and is the only person in town who can stop the monster.
As Eleven (so named by the government scientists who experimented on her), Millie Bobby Brown occasionally feels like Stranger Things’ most vital character.
Nothing that happens on Stranger Things will radically rewrite your conception of how stories about groups of preteen boys work, but the roles are cast well, and the Duffers have a real talent for eliciting good performances from their actors.
The town is a character in the story
If there’s a secret to how Stranger Things ends up succeeding, it’s in how the Duffers use the anywhere USA setting.
The Duffers have explained that, were they to have to write a movie they would have had to focus on one single storyline, of say, single mum Joyce (played by a harried Winona Ryder). But as an eight episode series they were able to tell the mysterious disappearance from a variety of angles, much like a teenage version of Twin Peaks.
The small town is very much a character in and of itself in Stranger Things. As such the series contains a number of sub plots. Critics have rushed to call this a little “flabby” but the series is very much about a group of people stuck in a small town which is fraying around its edges.
And they film the town like it’s a place filled with mystery and fascination. In particular, a late-season shot of the government lab where — surprise! — illicit experiments are occurring offers a shadowy, ominous sense of the building looming over the otherwise unremarkable locale.
A single mum searches for the truth
The star of Stranger Things — if such an ensemble-heavy show can be said to have a star — is Winona Ryder as Joyce, the mother of the boy who’s been captured by the monster. Her husband left her for another woman, and now she’s trying to raise two kids on her own, all the better to channel Spielberg.
Perhaps because she isn’t the focus of the show, at times her performance seems a bit too harried and lacking in light and shade. But she is at her best in scenes with Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who has a back-story similar to Joyce’s.
Stranger Things boasts something of a melancholy soul, one that’s most potent when these two are sharing the screen. That melancholy feeling is what elevates the show beyond its homages, to something approaching real feeling.
A teenage triumvirate
Anytime a story like this counts preteen kids among its major characters, there are guaranteed to be some older kids in the mix.
The teenage characters here take the form of the typical love triangle, including bookish but vaguely popular Nancy (Natalia Dyer), brooding and nerdy Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and heartthrob bad boy Steve (Joe Keery).
This storyline, like some other subplots feels a little padded in some instances. And at least in the first few episodes seem to exist to give some tension over the dinner table. But what 80s throwback doesn’t have love-struck teens. Fortunately these characters, rather than become sexed-up archetypes, are given arcs than play out till the final episode in the season.
This is one of the strengths that television can bring to a story like this.
Finding the unexpected in the mundane
If nothing else, the Duffers have a real talent for coming up with gorgeous images that will stick in your imagination. Like Joyce’s attempts to decorate the house with Christmas lights to contact the supernatural powers she believes may have taken her child. Like the scene in ET where Henry camps out in the yard waiting for ET to surface, the series blends the weird with the mundane, in a way that pays true credit to how thoroughly they’ve digested their obvious inspirations.
Stranger Things might be a hodgepodge of lots of other things, but there’s a sincerity to it that’s hard to fake. And in its appropriations of those other things, it somehow becomes something new that rises above its collage-like origins.
Much of it’s thematic content suggests both an affinity with storytelling but also an uncanny knack to display a small-town tale of mystery, loss, resilience, otherworldly threat, and above all humanity.
Stranger Things sees several disparate groups – starting with a typically Spielbergian bunch of excitable nerd kids – variously drawn into a wider, darker world than they’ve ever known before, and forced to define themselves by how they choose to explore it and overcome its dangers.
All episodes of Stranger Things are streaming on Netflix now
Watch the trailer