There are some shows that need time to breathe; where it’s not clear until you’ve given it a few episodes to sink in whether or not it’s good. Netflix’s new hit series Stranger Things is not one of those shows. From the very first minute of the first episode, it was clear that I was in for something truly special, and for its entire run of eight hour-long episodes, creators the Duffer Brothers never failed to meet the expectations they had set for themselves. Stranger Things is spooky, touching, well-directed, well-written, and endlessly nostalgic for the eighties. If you want to go in entirely unspoiled, you can stop reading right there, and walk away knowing that it has my highest recommendation, and you should go watch the first episode immediately. If you want to know a bit more, click that read more link. I won’t be spoiling anything major, but there’ll be some minor ones.
The first episode opens on a scientist fleeing through metal corridors, lit by rapidly flashing lights and filled with the sound of ugly alarm klaxons, deep in the bowels of a Department of Energy laboratory outside Hawkins, Indiana. We never see what he’s escaping, but as he stands in the freight elevator, waiting frantically for the doors to close him in safely, he suddenly realizes that the creature is, impossibly, in the elevator’s ceiling. The camera pulls out through the elevator doors as they begin to close, framing the scientist perfectly as he is pulled screaming into the ceiling by an unseen assailant. The elevator has two sets of doors – one vertical and one horizontal – and the effect is like a square iris closing in around him, framing his last moments in spectacular style until they close, and he vanishes entirely.
I mention all of this because this is the very beginning of the series – the cold open of the first episode, and already you can tell that this show is going to look fantastic. That final shot is one of the most incredible shots I have ever seen involving an elevator door, right up there with the blood-filled elevator from The Shining. In other words, this show had my attention immediately.
The same night that scientist was attacked, local boy Will Byers (played by Noah Schnapp) cuts through the woods on his way home from a marathon Dungeons and Dragons session. Biking through what he and his friends call the Mirkwood, he encounters…something. The viewer only sees a vague silhouette, but whatever it is, it sends Will running home. The monster follows him, corners him in the shed, and then…suddenly, Will simply vanishes without leaving any trace. He’s gone, and the mystery of his disappearance will hang over the show for its entire run as his friends and family try urgently to find him and bring him home.
The show’s first episode feels reminiscent of the beginning of Twin Peaks, layering on tons of dramatic irony as students go about their day and regular school-days drama, unaware of the tragedy that has already taken place and which is about to fracture their community. Indeed, in a lot of ways Stranger Things feels a lot like an echo of Twin Peaks: a central mystery to solve (“Who killed Laura Palmer” vs “Where is Will Byers”), a small town with government agencies getting up to shady business in the woods, and a supernatural presence which is rarely seen but frequently felt. But Twin Peaks is almost a decade later than the films this series is trying to hearken back to; from costuming to set decoration to the wonderful thrumming synth soundtrack, every element of the series is meant to invoke memories of the 1980s, and films like E.T. and Stand By Me. I’m about ten years too young to have actually lived through this period, but even I found myself caught up in the analog world the Duffer Brothers have painstakingly recreated, reminded of old photos, old television sets, and old toys; I had a moment of joy and recognition when I realized that one of Will’s friends has the exact same Millenium Falcon toy which I received for Christmas when I was eight years old. The only difference was the color of the sticker representing the engine glow, which in the show is orange instead of the blue I knew.
While the film is deeply nostalgic for films of that era, however, it’s not a time capsule movie. The Duffer Brothers didn’t track down old equipment and resurrect extinct filming techniques in order to create an authentic product that could have been filmed at the time. The goal is to evoke the feel of these old films, not recreate them. The film may have been run through color filters and had film grain added in post-production to reproduce the feel of old Kodak film stock, but it was still filmed with modern high-definition cameras. Likewise, as Mother’s Basement on YouTube points out (and I, embarrassingly, missed) the ambient synth soundtrack which feels so incredibly 80s is not, in fact, the sort of music filmmakers of that era used. Had Stranger Things been made in the 1980s, it would likely have had something that sounded like a John Williams soundtrack.
The plot follows several threads, which can be summarized in terms of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Childhood: Will’s best friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin go out into the woods in search of their missing friend, and instead find a mysterious girl with buzzed hair on the run from shadowy government agents. She gives them a number – Eleven – instead of a name, possesses strange powers, and claims to know where Will is. Adolescence: when someone close to her vanishes as well, Mike’s older sister teams up with Will’s older brother to track down the creature responsible, all while negotiating the perils of high school romance. Adulthood: Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Jim Hopper will stop at nothing to get to the truth about what happened to Will, no matter how crazed they seem or what authority figure they have to buck to do it. And looming in the background is the secretive Department of Energy lab, where a terrible mistake has been made, and where the emotionless Dr. Brenner and an army of men in hazmat suits are working night and day to contain it. All of these plot threads are connected, and they all come together and resolve in a satisfying manner in the finale.
Inevitably, though, some plotlines are going to be better than others. The stand-outs here are the adults; Winona Ryder as Joyce and David Harbour as Hopper both put in incredibly strong performances. Joyce in particular is the most fascinating characters in the show. Ryder’s depiction of a mother’s grief and confusion is harrowing, and if she sometimes hews a little too closely to cliches about bereaved mothers, that only makes the episodes in which she demonstrates real strength and a backbone of iron all the more striking. Harbour’s Chief Hopper is likewise a surprisingly complex man, whose dogged pursuit of the truth is motivated in part by a tragedy in his own past.
The kids are a close second. All four of the main child actors (Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven) put in astonishingly good performances. They are thoroughly believable as nerdy preteens, and the emotional range the Duffers manage to extract from them puts most Hollywood child acting to shame. In particular, Millie Bobby Brown does a fantastic job. Eleven is taciturn, bordering on mute for the first few episodes, so a lot of how her character comes across depends on the subtleties of her performance, and she absolutely nails it.
Eleven barely says a word through this whole sequence of events, but it says a lot about the kind of life she’s lived and the kinds of expectations she has for her own privacy (it also says a lot of funny things about the boys, and where they’re at viz a viz girls). And this is only one example of many; almost every character interaction is meaningful, and they work as well as they do because all of the performances are solid.
Unfortunately, the teenagers suffer a bit by comparison. While their portion of the story is perfectly serviceable, and both Natalia Dyer (Nancy) and Charlie Heaton (Jonathan) put in admirable performances, their plotline feels a bit like a weaker version of Joyce’s, and doesn’t slot into the ending quite as well as some of the other plot threads do. And while it’s fairly well-written, the teen romance angle feels like a bit of a distraction from the main action of the story. It’s by no means bad, and in fact some of my favorite scenes of the season come from their plotline. But in a series that shines as brightly as Stranger Things, it feels like it could stand to glitter a bit more.
The centerpiece of any monster story is, of course, its monster, and although its actual design is a little lackluster when you get a good look at it, the Duffers deploy it with skillful precision. They clearly understand that when it comes to fear, less is often more, and for most of the series’ run you only catch glimpses of it. You see just enough of it – a hand here, a quick flash of its faceless head – to know that you really don’t want to see any more of it. The Duffers are also careful with the amount of information they give the audiences about it; although they tell us enough that we can understand what it can do and how it behaves, but they’re very careful not to over-explain it. Enough is left to the imagination that even after eight hours, the monster remains intriguing.
Although the supernatural goings-on frighten most of the characters, as well they should, their response to that fear feels grounded in reality, and they respond with resourcefulness and courage. There’s one sequence in which Joyce tries to communicate with her missing son that feels like something out of The Martian. They may occasionally do stupid things, but unlike so many stock horror film characters, when they do dumb shit it’s for clearly defined reasons. There was one point at which I was practically screaming at Joyce: “That is bait. That is BAIT do not go back in that house. Just drive away. JUST DRIVE AWAY”. But when she did walk back inside, defying all common sense and survival instincts, she didn’t do so because she was stupid. She knew full well that it was dangerous, but she also knew that somehow, her son was also in there. It was an act of courage and will, not plot-induced idiocy, and it came across that way because she – and every other character – had thus far reacted to the presence of a monster in a grounded and believable manner.
Perhaps most importantly, while Stranger Things is most definitely a horror series, it’s not fixated on negative emotions. The supernatural forces at work in the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana hold great dangers for its inhabitants, but the supernatural can also be a source of great beauty. The Duffer Brothers are clearly quite adept at conveying fear and grief, but they also excel at love and affection, and in Stranger Things, they’ve managed to do all of those things at once.
Stranger Things is a Netflix Original production, and can be seen on…Netflix.