Saturday, November 19, 2016

Back to the '80s With "Stranger Things"

The new Netflix series "Stranger Things," created by the Duffer Brothers, was purposefully made to evoke the media of the 1980s, and the internet has been quick to point out the loads of references to Steven Spielberg, Steven King, John Carpenter, and even John Hughes movies. However, the reason why the eight-episode first season has gotten such a warm reception is because it's one of the most thoroughly, consistently entertaining pieces of television to have popped up in the media landscape in some time. And it definitely gets bonus points for being something very different - not original - but different.

It starts with a group of four 12-year-old boys in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons in 1983. They include nerdy leader Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), chunky goofball Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), charismatic Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp), who disappears on his way home from the game. Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) leads the search, but Will's high-strung mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) thinks something more sinister is going on, after some spooky occurrences at her house. She and her older son, teenage Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), start their own separate investigations. A few days later, Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), dating a bad boy named Steve (Joe Keery), crosses paths with the same phenomena that seems to be connected to Will's disappearance. And then there's Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a nearly silent girl with a shaved head, who wanders into town wearing only a hospital gown. She appears to be on the run from agents of the government, led by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

This can be broken down into essentially three different, intersecting narratives - one with the adults, one with the teenagers, and one with the kids. The one with the kids is the most fun, as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin puzzle over what to do with Eleven when she comes into their lives, and how to help Will. The boys act exactly like the kids you remember from "Goonies," "Stand By Me," and "E.T.," all bluster and overexcitement and deeply felt emotions. Gaten Matarazzo is frequently a scene stealer, and a solid character actor in the making. Millie Bobby Brown is also very good as Eleven, doing a lot with very little dialogue. With the teenagers, I initially wasn't sold on the romance-centric character dynamics, but eventually the performances won me over. Natalia Dyer keeps Nancy engaging, even when she's being an idiot. Finally, David Harbour is my pick for MVP, providing a solid, steady presence throughout as the town's police chief. Winona Ryder is the show's biggest headliner, but I found her only so-so. She's very one-note, which sometimes works, and often doesn't.

The weaker performances are easy to ignore, however, because the writing is unusually strong. It doesn't just recycle the old tropes from the '80s, like kids fighting supernatural monsters, and a young girl with strange powers, but puts them together in very compelling ways. Also, the storytelling is so nicely restrained, never giving all the answers and occasionally throwing in a few curveballs to subvert some of the old clich├ęs. The show is very good at maintaining momentum through the whole eight episodes, with very few slow spots. What really impressed me were the little behavioral nuances the writers caught - Nancy being chided for language by her mother, the boys biking all around town without any paranoid parent hovering over them, and the science teacher being consulted at a critical moment because the internet didn't exist yet. There are some missteps, like Mike and Nancy's parents being just a little too oblivious, and it gets a little too pleased with its own cleverness here and there, but these flaws are fairly minor.

"Stranger Things" is helped immensely by the show's production, which recreates the feel of the '80s down to the Trapper Keepers and the Tupperware. The soundtrack is a nicely atmospheric, synth-heavy jaunt into nostalgia, with Toto and Elegia making appearances. However, it's the original images that the series comes up with that really stick - Joyce trying to communicate with Will through Christmas lights, Jonathan's photographs of a pool party, and every variation on Eleven's appearance. The only things I thought were a little off were that the special effects were too good, and there wasn't nearly enough neon lighting for 1983.

I should reiterate that "Stranger Things" is a monster movie throwback at heart, and won't be for everyone, especially if they weren't around for the '80s. Despite all the praise, nobody should go into this actually expecting something at the same level as the old Spielberg flicks. John Carpenter and Steven King, maybe. It's a weird, wonderful corner of the media landscape that the Duffer brothers have managed to resurrect. I've very curious to see if they'll be able to sustain this in the inevitable sequel.
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