Stranger Things TV REVIEW
All eight episodes available on Netflix from 15 July
Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Directors: The Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy
There’s a moment in one of the later episodes of Stranger Things when it looks certain the show is going to recreate a classic moment from ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Then it does something unexpected instead. Which is very cool, but somehow… slightly disappointing. It’s great to be surprised but you also feel a little bit cheated.
And that’s symptomatic of Stranger Things as a whole. The Duffer Brothers’ celebration of ’80s fantasy films is such a loving homage it almost borders on parody as times, but the tropes are all delivered with such a straight face it’s difficult to know whether you’re supposed to take it seriously or not. Whereas Super-8, JJ Abrams’ attempt at recreating a Spielbergian suburban sci-fi vibe, settled for merely emulating the tone and setting, Stranger Things self-consciously riffs on iconic moments, characters and dialogue. There’s a little girl who’s clearly Gertie from ET. There’s a monster that has a giggle like a Gremlin. There’s a shot of the youngsters walking along railway track, just like in Stand By Me. Someone says, “I have a bad feeling about this.” A police chief has an Indiana Jones moment. Not to mention the huge number of overt geeky cultural references (the best of which has a science teacher ruining the best moment in The Thing for his girlfriend by explaining how the FX were done).
All of which is great fun for Easter eggs spotters, and not even particularly film literate ones. Anyone who’s ever seen more than two ’80s fantasy films will get some of the references. And this mini-series – eight episodes presented for your binge-watching delight – gives you plenty more reasons to watch it than mere nostalgia. There’s a delightfully quirky cast; the youngest set of kids are great an instantly loveable bunch of misfits who interact effortlessly and convince you they know what they’re talking about when they spout lines about rolling a six for defence or whatever. Millie Brown as Eleven is a revelation; with very little dialogue she lets her eyes do the talking and she displays a depth of emotion which is almost spooky in its intensity.
Meanwhile the teens rock some amusingly awful ’80s haircuts and get to prove that not all ’80s adolescents were mere serial killer fodder. The show has a pacy storyline and boasts plenty memorable visuals, some of which are FX based, but many are simply a great concept married to good production design and direction. For example, there’s a very effective moment when the Gertie avatar wanders along a hall with a forest of Christmas tree lights lighting up behind her.
The storyline, it has to be admitted, is a little convoluted and the least ’80s (and most millennial) thing about Stranger Things. In the small town of Hawkings one members of a quartet of Dungeons and Dragons playing boys, Will, goes missing. The other three misfits then befriend a shaven-headed, taciturn girl who has escaped from a nearby mysterious science facility (every US small town had a nearby mysterious science facility in the ’80s) and search for their friend. Meanwhile, Will’s socially awkward brother becomes involved when he surreptitiously snaps some photos of a teen party where a monster turns up and kidnaps one of the teens without the others seeing. And Will’s mum (Winona Ryder channelling a box of frogs for eight episodes) starts ranting at anybody in the vicinity when nobody believes her that Will is trying to communicate with her via the light fittings.
Somehow it does all come together at the end, but lots of questions remain (there’s even a cheeky meta piece of dialogue in the final episode that basically says, “That didn’t make an awful lot of sense, did it?”). So while the trapping are pure ’80s the plotting isn’t. The films that inspire Stranger Things were always powered by one simple, high-concept one-line pitch; however, you’d need at least a couple of paragraphs to sum up the central set-up in Stranger Things and even then it would probably be bit vague on details.
And who is it aimed at? It’s not a whizzbang action adventure like The Goonies or Gremlins, so younger kids may get a little bum-shuffling (especially when the teens start “getting it on”). On the other hand, it’s not gory or gritty enough to appeal to the fans of Netflix and cable-style, sweary, sweaty adult drama. Hopefully, it will find an audience because it’s a good-hearted, good-natured, well-made, well-acted slice of TV weirdness. While not perfect, the characters alone are engagingly bonkers enough to warrant a second season in their company.
Review by Dave Golder