It’s Super 8 the TV show! Not it’s not, well it is, kinda, sorta, not really…but maybe? Netflix’s big summer hit series “Stranger Things” has been championed across the airwaves by viewers and critics alike, hailing it as one of the best original shows to have come out of this golden age of television. Does it deserve and manage to live up to all the hype? Well sort of, I suppose. I mean, if I had a gun to my head then yes obviously it does, like, of course, I’d say so! But does it? Does it reeeally? I’ll try to explain.
I tend to usually wait a few weeks or even months whenever there is a new hit film, TV show or video game that strikes a chord with audiences. Trying to explain would be futile as I’ve had this problem (?) ever since I was a teenager. There are even some franchises I’ve ignored completely simply because I missed the first or second installments back in the day. For example Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series is one I’ve never bothered to get into simply because way back when in 2007 I missed out on all of the buzz the first game generated. Ever since then, and after every single AC game that has come out over the last nine years, I decided, whether to my benefit or detriment, not to bother. But Stranger Things wasn’t a show I was going to allow myself to pass up. For a start, it’s eight episode (or chapter) length is a healthy amount of time, in my view, for a story to be fleshed out neatly and the characters given enough time for us to get to know them. If the writing’s good that is. And so after several weeks of everyone ranting and raving about Netflix’s new hit, I finally caved in and watched it all over a weekend.
Unlike a lot of the people who created the series, or like many of the now professional journalists who have praising it online, I myself wasn’t a child of the 1980’s. No, I’m a solid Fresh Prince of Bel-Air kid, yeah that’s right I said it! And so with a show whose entire premise is a tribute to films by the likes of John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and Steven Speilberg to name a few, you might think that such nostalgia wears on me thin. Or perhaps even completely flies over my head. Fortunately for the show’s creators I, like most with any decent upbringing, was able to gorge myself on the awesome horrors of American 80’s cinema whilst growing up. The Thing, Altered States, Aliens, Nightmare on Elm Street; every possible kind of iconic 80’s horror movie imaginable, I was there, right on my sofa! It’s this nostalgia which has led in part to the massive success of the series. I hardly think anyone watching it, particularly if they’re not even from the US (or even Indiana for that matter) are going to reminiscing about that time they and their friends went cycling and discovered a monster in some dark cave and managed to defeat it with a slingshot. I could be wrong but I think that’s highly unlikely.
Now where Stranger Things as a series works is in its completely unapologetic tone. It revels in poking and prodding us with references to great films we might have grown up on. Some of them might not even be as good as we remember them, it doesn’t matter. The series creators, the Duffer Brothers, have managed to construct both an original product and also a pure homage to that decade where film was still shot on actual film, hair was big and music was awesomely cheesy. But, as the beloved guys from RedLetterMedia pointed out, where does one draw the line between homage and rip-off? At no point when watching the series’ eight chapters did I feel like the writers and creators were stealing scenes or things as basic as exact shots from other films. I thought the look and design of the show was really quite fresh, you know, for something set close to forty years ago. However when reading up on certain sequences of certain chapters I was disappointed to find out that there were many moments that actually almost rip-off films from a far more recent period. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is one such example, as is Tommy Lee Wallace’s “It“, not exactly recent I know but if you want to get technical it’s not really of that 80’s ilk either.
It’s discoveries like these that lessen my appreciation for the show, but only ever so slightly. At the end of the day they are only moments, moments caught up in a much bigger story. As for the narrative itself, ST doesn’t disappoint. Nods and winks aside, the plot of the show is fairly rudimentary. Three young boys begin searching for their missing friend, who vanishes under mysterious circumstances, and encounter a girl with super powers. The girl has escaped from an evil government laboratory nestled away in the quiet woodlands of the Hoosier state, and is pursued by a crazed scientist; whilst the disgruntled local sheriff begins his own search for the missing boy along with his distressed mother. Oh and that’s not forgetting also the clichéd teenage love story where one of the three main boy’s big sister is dating the local high school jock but becomes conflicted and torn about her feelings for him. I guess they had to reference “Say Anything” in there somewhere.
The narrative has three main plotlines that evolve slowly over each chapter. At first, the pacing can seem a little off, particularly in the first half of the show. The three boys have one argument too many, and there’s only so many scenes revolving around a mad scientist staring at computer screens I can take before it gets stale. But fortunately, for us as viewers, the Duffer Bros. have decided to forego the usual trope of child characters discovering the truth, trying to tell adults, adults not listening, and then the children defeating the monster while everyone else is none the wiser. No, thankfully, that tired and exasperated writing gimmick is never present, leaving the show’s chapterised climax with its three storylines converging successfully. For once we have a story where our assorted ragtag heroes are all one big happy, functioning unit. It was scenes like when all of the characters are working together, trying to solve the problems befallen on their town, that were some of the most refreshing aspects of the story. Yes, they inevitably get split up in the final episode, but it’s at least done in a smarter way that most other films or shows would have handled.
And speaking of our heroes, let me mention the cast for a second. They’re all bloody spectacular! Like anyone with a memory of Alien Resurrection, I was at first skeptical of seeing Winona Ryder’s name appearing in the show’s opening titles. However, despite her performance never really changing all that much throughout, she plays her one note beautifully. Winona is obviously a lot older now than during her “brat pack” days with fellow brats such as Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke, but her struggle as the 40-something desperate single mother looking for her son is the emotional lock to the story, and she’s excellent as it. David Habour’s Jim Hopper, the town’s miserable sheriff, is also very strong as the skeptical lawman who eventually comes round and ends up being one of the most passionate forces in the plot. Habour’s character is given a decent enough backstory to make his decisions have logical sense and thanks to the writers avoiding the “I don’t believe you stupid kids” cliché he ends up being one of the most likable representations of a local sheriff that I’ve seen in a while. Then, of course, there are the kids themselves. Finn Wolfhard (great name!) shines as Mike, the leader of the three young boys who are searching for their missing friend. Wolfhard’s geeky appearance and slightly androgynous looks make him an interesting choice for one of the show’s main characters. Instead of the creators going for the typical too handsome for his own good proto-Hollywood child star, the Duffer Bros. have cleverly cast a group of actors that look, as well as sound, like normal kids.
The three boys have great chemistry with one another when they bicker on screen, even if said bickering are sometimes unwelcome for the sake of pacing. Each one is geeky in their own way and you could really picture a group of kids like this hanging out in the quiet suburbs of small town America; hiding away in their parent’s basements and playing D&D. But the star of the show is really its most understated character. That of the young girl known only as 11, or El for short. Milly Bobby Brown’s performance as 11 is the true stand-out. As far as psychic child prodigies go there have been a lot of interpretations, and usually most of the fall into the same victimized puddle of melodrama that audiences, or at least I, have come to expect. Brown’s El, however, gives a performance where the psychic side of her personality is more of a distraction than what defines her. She comes across as someone wanting to fit in, wanting to be part of the team, wanting to be normal, if only she could just stop snapping necks and messing with the local power grid! El is a tragic figure in many ways, but for directors such as Shawn Levy and the talented team of writers behind her, this was one of the first superpowered characters I had come across on film that for once was something more than just her abilities. She is, or at least was, a human being, and one that is trying to have others look past her powers because there is simply more to her than just that. The Emmy’s may not have the same status as the Oscars but it’ll be a scandal if she isn’t at least nominated!
Without wanting to forget the other great characters in the show I’ll simply say that the entire supporting cast is a joy to watch. The local boys’ science teacher is straight out of your typical high school-based horror movie. The coif-tastic class jock, Steve, appears as the standard arrogant douche-bag but one who actually develops a surprising arc twist at the end. Mike’s big sister Nancy, played by Natalia Dyer, manages to surpass the clichéd trope of the fussy, menstruating high school teen and becomes one of the show’s best characters during the finale. In some of her more action-orientated moments I almost had flashbacks of Ellen Ripley. The missing kid Will’s older brother Jonathan is one of the story’s more tragic characters but his relationship with his mother is very convincing and at times touching. Oh and let’s not forget Matthew Modine, who not only has his hair in the style of David Cronenberg himself, but also (let’s be honest) sadly hasn’t had much of a career outside of the 80’s. In one of my earliest entries on this blog, I reviewed “The Dark Knight Rises“, mentioning how it was refreshing to see Modine make a comeback in a big Hollywood feature. I hope Stranger Things adds to that comeback as Modine’s talents in films such as “Married to the Mob” and “And the Band Played On” really highlighted his abilities as a solid character actor. Although his supposed death sequence in the final episode, err I mean chapter, felt a bit rushed, he stands out with his look as the creepy government scientist. One of the few regrets I have about the show is that his character isn’t really given much of a backstory or fleshed out in any meaningful way. I wanted to know more about his thought process, his mindset, and his personality. Instead, we see for about 90% of his screentime Modine just standing upright lurking in some dark corner. His performance is as creepy as ever but the character itself felt very much like wasted potential.
In summary, there’s an awful lot to love about Netflix’s new show. It’s tone, world design, music and costumes all complement each other wonderfully, and the 80’s aesthetic never really wears off or goes too far. Instead of making some tawdry pastiche of movies we know, love, and for your old farts out there, grew up watching, Stranger Things works as both a tribute and as its own original story. Its best feature is its cast, even when the writing may slip up during a line or two now and then. The characters work well with each other and most importantly of all are all believable, even if there is a creepy monster from an upside down parallel dimension of Earth that is kidnapping people in order to harvest them so that they can infect humans with facehugger laying eggs that eventually lead to the destruction of the planet! Little nods and touches like the opening title sequence and the chapter crawl at the beginning of each episode are what make the show an almost sweet experience despite the dark tone. This was clearly a product made out of pure love for the films which inspired it, some of which are now hailed as masterpieces today, even if they were flops during when the story is set.
My only concern, and yes here I go again with ending on a cynical note, is the idea of there being a second season of ST. Sometimes it’s best to leave things in the dark, particularly if they’re scary monsters. A second season would have to do something with the narrative that would make the characters we have come to learn and love work again, but how do you go about doing that? The boys are reunited with their friend, the sheriff solved the case and the town of Hawkins, Indiana is at peace once again…or so it would seem. Although the show’s ending left a few mysteries up in the air, quite frankly I’m more than happy for this to have been a short, sweet little tale made with a love for the 80’s, and that’s it. You know, if the show’s creators are as big a fan of the movies they pay tribute to, maybe they should end on a mysterious high note, much like that of surely the greatest 80’s horror movie The Thing. An ending where answers are desired but never given. That surely would make Stranger Things all the more strange and unique.