† H a p p y H a l l o w e e n †
In a peculiar age of entertainment where everything is either a sequel to, a remake of, or otherwise nostalgic of the works many of us grew up with, Stranger Things is one of the better and somehow fresher examples. It isn’t a reboot or a follow-up to anything, nor does it merely attempt to take advantage of our familiarity with a previous work to get our butts in the seats. Instead it’s one of the most passionate love letters to a certain era and type of film/TV that I’ve seen in recent years. I wouldn’t say it is a show entirely without flaw but it gets it right where it matters.
Stranger Things is a recently successful Netflix original that instantly brings to mind the child-driven and adventurous early sci-fis of Steven Spielberg while mixing in the greatest horror hits of John Carpenter and Stephen King with a dash of Monster Squad, Flight of the Navigator and Twin Peaks. As icing on the pumpkin cake, it is set during the 1980’s; a simpler time when the kids knew more about what was going on than the adults and there was no need to force an explanation as to why the characters’ cell phones stop working during dire situations.
The series takes place primarily in the town of Hawkins, Indiana and centers around the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who spots a semi-humanoid figure in the middle of the road as he bikes home one night and immediately goes missing in the nearby woods. Shortly thereafter, the townsfolk make fruitless attempts to find him, police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbours) begins investigating as shady things start happening around the town, and Will’s grieving mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) starts making note of strange noises and electrical anomalies inside her home, making her believe that her child is trying to communicate with her, much to the concern of Will’s awkward older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
We get to know Will’s closest friends; the cautious Lucas (Caleb MacLaughlin), the lisping but sugar-sweet Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and their “leader” Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard). Amidst their loss and concern, they make the acquaintance of an odd and mystifying young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) who can hardly speak, refers to herself as Eleven, barely knows what anything she sees is, and is revealed to be some sort of metahuman/lab experiment on the run from a top-secret science organization led by the silver-haired Dr. Martin Brenner (Mathew Modine). The kids, or at least Mike, are convinced that this girl is a significant piece of the Will Byers puzzle and that her unnatural abilities can help them find him.
Also involved are Mike’s teenaged sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whom Jonathan crushes on somewhat, Mike’s unsuspecting parents, a school tough guy named Steve (Joe Keery), Joyce’s nonchalant and self-centered ex-husband Lonnie (Ross Partridge), Nancy’s book-smart bestie Barbara (Shannon Purser), two comic-relief police deputies, and several other characters that all leave a mark. Few of these names are well-known or ubiquitous but it’s a safe bet that this is about to change.
From beginning to end, Stanger Things is intriguing on numerous levels. The way all the secrets unmask themselves and the way we learn more about the characters as more things go wrong around them; all of it works. The music and the visuals set an appropriate tone for the experience, adding a Caprenter feel to Spielbergian story with King-ian protagonists. Stranger Things was created by Duffer brothers Ross and Matt, who clearly know how to pay worthy tribute to the classics and do so in a captivating, puzzling and sometimes genuinely terrifying way.
If I were to issue a small complaint, I would say that the show is maybe a little too quick to reveal what’s going on and supplying us with answers. The series has been renewed for a second season already and I personally would have been more excited if there was even more left for us to discover about the show’s universe. I know shows like Lost have made most of us sick and tired of stories that hold off answers for a needlessly long time (and only raise more questions once the answers do come), but we should stay wary of the other side of the spectrum as well. Another thing that bothered me was a scene towards the end that, all things considered, was a pinch too silly (even when you’re a dumb kid out of an 80’s movie, you do not trust in the power of the slingshot that much).
These aren’t huge issues, however, and I am still thoroughly pleased and happily surprised. As much as I agree with the new season of South Park in its commentary on how we rely too much on nostalgia for escapism these days (even as we forget the past wasn’t always as great as your average Trumper would assert), it’s wonderful to me that it has been done in a way that isn’t purely cynical and/or done for purposes of cashing in on societal trends. This was made for people who care, by people who care, and I definitely think you should marathon it this Halloween if you’ve yet to see it. It’s quite the adventure. I’ve missed adventures.
NOTE: I was initially going to review another Cartoon Network show, namely Billy and Mandy, as part of my horror month this year. But since Stranger Things seemed more apt in my eyes this time, I’ve decided to postpone that one to next month. Yeah. Y’all can sleep easy tonight after all.