STRANGER THINGS (Season 1) – Turning the 80’s up to ELEVEN

If you read no further in this review, please take away this. You need to watch Stranger Things, and you need to watch it now. Go home now and binge the eight-episode Netflix original. Not because the story does anything new. It doesn’t. If you’ve seen, Jaws, E.T., The Goonies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, Scanners, The Thing, Alien, The Twilight Zone, or The X-Files, you’re going to recognize some of the moments, concepts, tropes, themes, and iconography that made those properties so famous. The reason you need to see it is because it blends the most effective aspects of those properties into one of the most unexpectedly marvelous classical homages since Star Wars. And it does this in such continuously unexpected and exciting ways, that you deserve to see it before someone spoils it for you a week from now.

Show creators, the Duffer brothers, Matt and Ross, ape prime-era Spielberg better than J.J. Abrams ever has, (and that guy built a career around aping Spielberg). This is the epic that Super 8 should have been. A surreal, sci-fi, mystery-horror driven largely by the adventurous kids in a small town to a conclusion that questions the place of man in the universe. If the Drew Struzan inspired poster gives you the warm feelies inside, just know you’re going to love the show even more.

Stranger Things Season 1 Poster
Yes please!

The show’s pace is incredible. Not a single scene feels overlong or out of place, and it has some of the best transitions I’ve seen. The experience is designed to feel like powering through an incredible paperback novel, brought to life by a perfect cast.

There are five major child actors in the show, and they’re all so effortlessly fantastic that they put most of their peers to shame. I’m not sure if other shows and movies just don’t bother looking as hard, or if they just don’t know how to write for kids, but these kids are endlessly endearing and absolutely believable. Winona Ryder is probably the biggest name on the cast sheet and is given more incredible work to do here than she’s had in years. Character actor David Harbour turns in such a fantastically nuanced role as the broken police chief that it’s a wonder he hasn’t broken out as a leading man yet.

It helps that every character is written as incredibly flawed, yet likable. Most stories are lucky to get even one character who is believably screwed up, but somehow manage to warm our hearts. Nearly every character in Stranger Things fits this description, even the ones who would typically fill the “generic douche-bag” role of their peers. It’s as incredibly nuanced as that other popular genre show Game of Thrones, where even the “good” characters can make unexpected mistakes, or act as an antagonist to one another.

Stranger-Things-Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers
Like Christmas.

While some of the special effects don’t quite hit the level of the amazing films they’re hearkening to, the production value is otherwise incredible. It may have the best lighting I’ve ever seen in a show, with more than a few cinematic setups that simply chill the bones. The ever so slightly oversaturated technicolor imitates the fanciful feel of an early 80’s film better than anything I’ve seen shot digitally. Even the production design is so effortlessly 80’s that it feels more authentic than films from that era. The environment feels lived in, and every environment tells a story about its inhabitants. Simple touches like the lower income Byers homestead still feeling decidedly 70’s gives an unspoken indication of when their family bottomed out.

Even the incredible soundtrack by S U R V I V E and show’s title sequence out-80’s the 80’s. It’s incredible to see how much cleaner VFX techniques and a wider bandwidth of techno beats can improve the long-forsaken styles of the era.

The use of the era isn’t just for the sake of tribute, either. The themes of the U.S.’s simultaneous apathy and mistrust go hand in hand with an era of growing government overreach. Stranger Things looks back on the 80’s as the time when it all started to go wrong. When the ends started justifying the means, and everybody was too comfy with their suburban American lifestyles to care. It represents a time when nerds were still underdogs, trying to find their place in the world. It shows the positive results of learning to work together in role play. But also hints at their mistrust and misunderstanding of girls and their tendency towards having savior complexes as a result of their fantasy escapades.

It also represents a time when nerds were still underdogs, trying to find their place in the world. It shows the positive results of learning to work together in role play, but also hints at their mistrust and misunderstanding of girls, and their tendency towards having savior complexes as a result of their fantasy escapades.

Stranger Things - David Harbour as Chief Jim Hopper
Something weird is going on here…

So what’s wrong with the show? Very little. There are a few plot developments that feel like they should contribute more to the overall story. Things that make you go “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t we have heard more about…?” Deaths happen offscreen that are never seriously followed up on. Simple lip service that those cases were likely tied into the one already being explored would have made it seem less like they were being callously ignored. One dramatic setup also receives no payoff. It’s ultimately minor, and the show possibly goes a different (better?) way, but it does amount to a “huh,” in a story that otherwise has nearly flawless buildup and payoff.

Stranger Things follows familiar tropes without falling into the trappings that would make them feel outdated. Its characters, cast, pacing, and directorial control all amount to what may damn well be one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It successfully resurrects a style of even-handed adventure and suspense that has long since been lost to cinemas. It’s the unlikely horror experience that forgoes being unnecessarily disturbing. An adult story, designed to be accessible to mature kids. The definitive Spielberg-esque, PG-13 experience.

Oh… you’re still here? Go watch Stranger Things! Tell all your friends. You won’t regret it.

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Stranger Things - Season 1
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