This review contains some minor spoilers.
Stranger Things is a Netflix Original Supernatural-Thriller that centres around the search for a missing boy within a small american town in Indiana in 1983. It’s ultimately a love letter to the 1980’s from its creators the Duffer Brothers with its slew of references that range from Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and The Goonies. This is coupled with a slick modern presentation which creates an entertaining and gripping trip down memory lane that’s not without its niggles.
You are slapped in the face by nostalgia whilst watching Stranger Things, it oozes out of every scene shot by shot. The most obvious reference and one that drew me in was witnessing the child protagonists of the show in their introductory scene playing Dungeons & Dragons together. I was impressed by the accuracy of the depiction as much as I question the effectiveness of a fireball against a Demogorgon I do appreciate the use of a real monster, with a sick looking and accurate miniature. Likewise, the later references to the Veil of Shadow and how it’s described were spot on in regards to the ShadowFell within the D&D multiverse right up to the little cracks, in reality, it leaves for characters and monsters to crawl in and out of.
The opening scene is a reference to E.T which has a similar introductory scene. In E.T, however, Stephen Spielberg wasn’t giving a wink and a nod to D&D fans, he had the kids playing D&D because it was a popular 80’s thing at the time that children did. Many of the references in Stranger Things are just a wink and a nod that. For example, there’s a scene where the boys try to fight off the monster with an inexplicably procured slingshot, despite bullets doing very little against it earlier, which made incredibly little sense until I realised it was an IT reference. Unfortunately, it had already dragged me out of the scene.
When you have a show that stitches together multiple references you can easily run into issues with tone and consistency. Imagine the kids from the Goonies with Stephen King style monsters crawling out of the ceiling and the evil scientists from E.T somehow failing to catch them despite having military grade trucks, cars and helicopters versus bicycles and you have some idea of what Stranger Things is about. Quentin Tarantino is masterful at creating original works out of stitched together references, although this is in part to the obscurity of his references which harvest Japanese cinema and old spaghetti westerns rather than Hollywood 80’s blockbusters that are still deep in the public conscious. Stranger things just can’t pull it off to the same degree. This leaves you with a little a little niggle that you’re being lied to. Nostalgia is always going to feel good to watch, it gives us that little happy tingle of a time gone past which we can idealise in our minds but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you are watching is good.
That being said it is still a fantastic and charming show. It’s gripping from the start and is the television equivalent of a page-turner, making you want to hit next and binge the whole thing which Netflix shows seem to be edited to do. The story unfolds in a satisfactory, if not predictable, manner and the cast mostly do a fantastic job of bringing the characters and the era to life.
I felt the little lost psychic girl ‘El'( Millie Bobbie Brown) was underutilized within the show. She seemed to serve mostly as a plot device able to carry the group of boys from one place to another or use her powers to solve a problem whether that be trying to work out a puzzle, escaping the monster or dealing with the military forces hunting her. Beyond that she served as a way for the characters, especially Mike Wheeler to grow as the protagonists of all good coming of age style flicks need to do, but didn’t seem to get a chance to do so herself. The rest of the child actors are surprisingly good and have genuinely endearing characters that never fall into the trap of being too cute or annoying.
Winona Ryder gives a stand out performance as the mother of lost boy Will Byers trying to keep her grip on reality as everybody around her insists she’s insane for believing the boy is not only still alive but there’s some kind of supernatural cause for his disappearance in the works. She jumps from terror to anger to despair to outright bloody determination and back again in her stubborn search for her son.
There were a few annoying moments where the characters decided to have moments of random stupidity in order to advance the plot, whilst I wouldn’t quite call these plot holes, they were rather jarring. The town’s apathetic police chief Jim Hopper ( David Harbour) decides to invade the super secret well guarded military base twice. The first time he goes in with no backup while choosing not to tell the incriminating evidence he has just discovered to anybody else. The second time he essentially runs in the front door and then looks surprised when he and his accomplice get surrounded. There was also some obvious use of flashback and exposition, especially in regards to Chief Hopper. We get it. He’s helping to find the lost Will to redeem himself for not being able to save his own daughter. This felt added in editing just in case the audience didn’t understand the fairly obvious thing to understand.
A sequel for the show has been confirmed and whilst it the season finale does leave a few little threads open that lead into one, although thankfully also does satisfactorily tie up most of its loose ends and offer a complete piece in of itself I have no idea where a sequel could really go that would be as interesting. They’ve already exhausted a huge amount of references and what they have left doesn’t feel like there’s enough to work with. Granted while the show did wrap up the plot and answer a lot of questions it hasn’t done much to fully flesh out its world, the Shadow Veil, in particular, seems like a bizarrely barren place considering it’s populated seemingly by one monster and some eggs as far as we know. Still, I just don’t think there’s enough left to stretch it out any further. This comes back to my niggle in regards to nostalgia. Stranger Things has spent all of its nostalgia points, there’s not much of the 80’s left they can delve into but unfortunately not enough of a backbone to the show without the nostalgia glueing it together to form anything interesting beyond that. I hope the Duffer brothers can pull something exciting out of the hat but I’m not holding my breath.