Review: Netflix's STRANGER THINGS is a Fun, Heartwarming Ride...With a Dark Side
I'm just on the other end of shotgunning eight hours of Netflix's new series Stranger Things, and I'm still reeling from the emotional rollercoaster ride. Right off the bat: if you're thinking this is a show oriented toward kids (which is sort of what I thought), you're so wrong. While creating a feeling of youthful nostalgia and adventure, Stranger Things deals with some heavier themes during its inaugural eight episode season as it constantly mines your emotions, but we'll get there soon enough. If you haven't had the opportunity to waste eight hours straight in front of a TV, and maybe you're wondering if it's worth it...
Yeah, it's worth it.
Set in 1980s Indiana, Stranger Things begins with the escape of an unseen creature from a secure government lab, which serves as the starting gun to a series of mysterious and eerie events that overtake a small town, mainly involving the disappearance of young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). We follow Will's D&D-obsessed best friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) as they attempt to solve the growing mystery after taking on a strange and powerful new friend named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). There's a lot more to unpack in Stranger Things, but before I get into spoiler territory I'll give a small non-spoiler review, just in case you're on the fence.
Stranger Things grabs you from its first moments and doesn't let go. Sure, it might loosen its grip momentarily here and there (mainly due to one particular character), but it's very quick to reel you back in with its seamless blend of humor, joy, sorrow, romance, and action, constantly pulling your emotions back and forth until you come out on the other side. Although I'd say the kids are the main characters, most of the main players have good reason to get in on the action while leaving the rest of the 'normal' folk questioning, or ignoring, the surrounding weirdness. The cast collectively knocks it out of the park — especially the kids. The dialogue between them is warm and funny, but more importantly, it's believable. They all have such a tight and delightful chemistry it almost leaves you wondering if they are indeed best friends in real life.
While the kids shine in heartwarming and youthful exuberance, it's wonderful how creators Matt and Ross Duffer switch between the perspectives of the kids, teens, and adults, showing us how each is reacting and processing the extraordinary circumstances in their own way. Stranger Things moves along at an almost perfect pace, never lingering on one plotline for too long and organically stepping characters through the story with fluidity. The Duffer Brothers have successfully created a well-shot, well-written world full of colorful and lovable characters while maintaining a dark and foreboding undercurrent that deals with some uncomfortable themes.
All right. If you haven't watched Stranger Things, avert your eyes now! If you have, or simply don't care, follow me! SOME SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS AHEAD! YE BE WARNED!
This cast is full of outstanding actors, who seem to have benefited by the direction of either The Duffer Bros' themselves or Shawn Levy. I can't name one standout from the series, as each member of the ensemble brings something great to the table. I can name a weak link, however. Let's break 'em down, shall we?
I was blown away by the performances from the youngest members of Stranger Things' cast. Not only did they convey a warm and youthful innocence, they beg you to enter your memories and place yourself in the shoes of your inner 12-year-old. You're along for the ride with them, living these events because they perfectly convey the wonder, fear, sadness, and joy of each moment. It's fun to see through their filter, doing things like equating Elle's powers to Professor X or The Monster as a creature from Dungeons & Dragons. Each child has their own moments to shine too, whether it's Dustin's slingshot, Lucas' unbreakable loyalty and constant humor, or Mike's bravery. Arguably, the best moments of Stranger Things come from the interactions between them; more often than not, they're charged with welcome humor. Solidifying their party is a mysterious little girl named Eleven, or Elle for short. Hiding out in Mike's basement, Elle is a powerful telekinetic child who has escaped shadowy government agents who'd been using her to gain intelligence from Russia during The Cold War. Brown's performance as Elle is deep and emotional. She's introverted, rarely speaking more than three words at a time, but conveying torment and loneliness through her eyes and facial expressions. There's plenty of cool moments involving Eleven and her powers too, especially when she's breaking bones with the flick of her head.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Stranger Things was the aforementioned ability to create a story that can be seen from the perspective of each age group, which is successful in attacking our nostalgia and inspiring a deep investment in the characters. The Duffer Bros make it just as easy to sidle right into teenage bliss, angst, and ignorance. We're lead here by Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers (Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton, respectively), who give us the familiar trope of opposing teenage lives: the outcast and the normal girl. Nancy is just a normal suburban girl. She's looking for attention from the coolest guy in school and is subsequently invited to a party when his parents are out of town. She sneaks out behind Mom's back, shotgunning beers — Nancy, how could you! Jonathan is a loner, always looking at people through his camera and detached from the rest of society. He'd been given the role of 'Man of the House' when his father left and is constantly affected by it. When Will disappears, he finds himself investigating through nearby woods where he comes across Nancy and the party, where he proceeds to take some creepy voyeuristic photos that reveal the monster, which really brings our teens together.
Nancy and Jonathan are older, and with that age comes the absence of innocence portrayed by our kids, and the inception of confusion. Above everything, it's believable. They're teenagers that are trying to overcome the redundancy or dysfunction of their parents, constantly trying to carve out their own way in life without the pressure of outside influence. It's through these unexplainable and extraordinary events where they find themselves as individuals, their strengths/weaknesses, and their will to fight through a crazy situation full of adversity. I may have only detailed two of the main characters, but honestly, the rest of the secondary teens are just as believable and lend important weight to the overall story. Chief among them: Nancy's sometimes douchey, sometimes charming boyfriend: that damn Steve Harrington. Seriously, though, he'll be selling cars sometime in the future, right?
It might sound like I'm all in for this show, but there were honestly a few elements that I wasn't very fond of (not many, admittedly). The adult characters in this show are mainly represented by Chief Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers (David Harbor and Winona Ryder), but expand into a few other important pieces of the puzzle — mainly a silver-haired, scarily calm government doctor named Martin Brenner, played by Matthew Modine with an underlying love for power and information. He truly seems to love Elle, but because of what she can do for him, not who she is. Much like the kids and teens, we are able to see the situation from Hopper's changing perspective, but most interestingly, he seems to understand each perspective. Jim Hopper was, outside of the main group of kids, the most memorable character of the season. If you needed a laugh? Hopper to the rescue. Someone needed a straight-up rocking to the face? Hopper will be there. Questioning reality? It takes him a second, but Hopper will wear a tin-foil hat with you. Not only was Harbor's performance believable, he gave us reason to travel up and down the emotional spectrum with him. Arguably his character arc was the most well-written and fleshed out, starting him at the bottom of the barrel with a lackadaisical attitude for his boring town and progressing him naturally, letting his character grow with the story and ending up with some redemption that's pretty sure to make you at least a little bit misty-eyed. Here's a perfect time to break my streak of positivity with some bad news. While Ryder really goes for it with her performance of the grief stricken and anxious Joyce Byers...it just doesn't work. She's constantly cranked up to 10, overacting most of the screen time she receives in the first six episodes and almost coming off like she wanted more spotlight than the rest. In fact, she is one of the only elements of Stranger Things that periodically removed me from the experience, showing a lack of nuance and almost trying way too hard to deliver. She does redeem herself somewhat in the final two episodes, and when she actually tones it down, her performance fits quite nicely, complimenting the stellar efforts of those around her.
Stranger Things is an obvious homage to lovable '80s films with most of its influence seemingly coming from Spielberg in his prime. It invokes similar feelings to E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of The Third Kind while carving out something completely original and intriguing of its own. Due to its breezy eight episode count, the season never feels too short or too long, but just right. You're never bored with a certain plot or sub-plot because it cracks along and moves forward at a snappy pace while simultaneously keeping you on your toes. Characters aren't just running into each other for the writers' convenience, either. It feels like everyone's path has been carefully thought out and pieced together in order to converge them in a concise and sensible way. Although there are some tropes that weren't avoided (i.e. when Elle saves Mike from his fateful plunge for friendship at the last second), they rarely feel shoehorned, nor do they come from thin air. There are some twists and turns that yank on your heartstrings, especially the moment where Will's body (not so much) is dragged from the lake. The lead-up to said moment is executed perfectly, giving just enough misdirection to throw you off exactly what's going on, and pays off with the visceral autopsy scene involving Hopper and Will's (not so much) body. It's a genuine moment of cringe-worthy horror that succeeds in putting you in the character's shoes, wondering with Hopper what his actions will lead to.
The Duffer Bros' and Levy split directorial duties for the first season, and it's easy to tell that it aids in making the season cohesive. It's filmed with warmth and love and it's obvious that the team behind Stranger Things loves their characters. This isn't a show that was thrown together haphazardly, rather a strategically built piece of art with great story, visuals, and good writing. We explore classic themes of good and evil in a fun and adventurous way, but the creative team is never afraid to plunge into darkness, tackling heavy themes like premature death, mourning, and grief. The darkened alternate dimension, referred to as The Upside Down, could be viewed as a metaphor for hell and the devil lurking below. The Upside Down is an intriguing place: a cold and desolate mirror dimension that seemingly exists right below our physical reality, but it's left mostly shrouded in mystery. The climax involving the monster fight and Hopper/Joyce's foray into The Upside Down was a little weaker than the rest; everything just felt a little too easy and rushed in the show's final half hour, but it doesn't stop inspiring an emotional response, and definitely doesn't tarnish the experience.
The Duffer Bros' choose to resolve the Will Byers and Monster storylines this season, but leave things open for the future. Big things! What is The Upside Down, exactly? Are there more children like Eleven from the government program? Why was the monster keeping Will alive? What the hell was up with Will at the end? Is that actually Will at the end, or did he puke up another monster? Where the hell did Hopper go in that car? Was he brainwashed after? C'mon! It's fun to have these lingering questions that will most certainly hook most of us in for a second season and beyond. It's difficult to be negative about Stranger Things. It's too lovable and engaging — it has a handful of memorable characters, moments, dialogue, twists, and turns. It's fairly easy to be optimistic about the future of The Duffer Bros' creation. They've left us with the feeling that something special is just beginning, and if the first season is indicative of what's in store, stranger things are indeed coming.