With all of the buzz that Netflix’s Stranger Things was attracting, I was compelled to take a look (and a day later, I’d binged it all!). It only takes a few minutes of footage to recognize that it’s the kind of masterpiece that J.J. Abrams was aiming for with Super 8, like a mashup of the ‘greats’ from the 1980s. Watch long enough and you’ll see Steven Spielberg, Christopher Columbus, Richard Donner, Steven King, John Carpenter, and a host of others.
Simply put, my review of Stranger Things is The Goonies-meets-Firestarter for the over thirty crowd, or Midnight Special-meets-Super 8 for the younger crowd.
For a more detailed exploration, read on.
On November 6, 1983, in the city of Hawkins, Indiana, twelve-year-old Will vanishes while riding home from Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. While his mother, Winona Ryder’s Joyce drags the police chief, Hopper (David Harbour), into an exploration of the whereabouts, Will’s friends, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Mazzarro), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), explore the disappearance as well, aiming at finding what happened to his friend and bringing him back. But this is no simple abduction (a la Prisoners), and instead a genre-bending, fast-paced adventure of epic proportions.
Simultaneous to Will’s disappearance, Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) is searching for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a young woman with mysterious powers who has escaped from Hawkins Laboratory. Her powers are obviously desired by different parties, and the collision of Will’s disappearance and her appearance cannot be explained initially.
While the pop culture inclusions sprinkled throughout the eight episodes of Stranger Things are like a forty-year-old’s dream, the power of the story is strengthened by the familial and friend dynamics that spiderweb out from the actual searches for Will and Eleven. The three boys who remain are completely focused on what it means to be a friend, and how they are to honor their missing friend; the mothers, Joyce and Mike’s mom, Karen (Cara Buono), present as different types of 1980s mothers trying to care for their families in the best way they know how to.
Off to the side – at least initially – is the dynamic of Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who falls hard for athletic rich kid Steve (Joe Keery), who fights with the various stereotypes expected by his friends (and the audience). Here, we watch that ’80s love triangle play out with Will’s older brother, Jonathan (Charles Heaton). All of your Sixteen Candles/Say Anything fixations will get their shot through the fantasy/horror lens here. Just remember all of those warnings you should remember, like don’t ever leave the party alone and never, ever make out in the forest in your car.
Middle school and high school both get a bit of a jab – for what they’re good at and what they’re not, while stressing the dynamics that drive kids to adventures (and make adults shake their heads). Somehow, it allows for Stranger Things to be hilarious, scary, emotionally-charged, and exciting, all at the same time. You know, what Super 8 clearly wasn’t. (Sorry, JJ.)
But for crowds that love their science versus fantasy with an extra blend of emotional dynamic sans Scully and Mulder, this is just what the doctor ordered. It’s amazing – and good enough to make us wonder what comes next (even if we see it hinted at in the closing episode). We actually care about what happens to these boys – and even their parents – while the body count rises and we’re still focusing on hoping those we’ve come to appreciate will make it to the final credits.
And yet, because I’m me and this is ScreenFish, I’ll point out a few of the things I noticed that were deeper than just entertainment.
For one, Hopper is my favorite character. He’s exploring what it means to grieve, and doing a terrible job of it when we meet him. He’s estranged from his wife, and we know he lost a child. We can see his helplessness, and his coping mechanisms, as he tries to summon the energy and heart to care about Joyce’s crazy proposal that her son was abducted – and that he’s talking to her through various extraordinary means. But Hopper is the kind of lovable loser, the guy who begins to believe the kids (think Christmas movies, maybe) and see the world of wonder and excitement that they propose all along.
Those kids believe. They have faith, hope, and love (not to get too metaphysical) for each other, for the future, for the universe as it could be. They are heroic, not just settling for life as it’s handed to them or as it ‘is’. They want better, and even when they’re terrified, they pursue the best of life for everyone they can. They are Steven King-style kids, pursuing the dark and the dangerous, to see what lurks beyond – and willing to fight it, if it’s evil.
The evil itself seems to be something that is a manifestation of what people fear – of the things they’ve failed at – notably in keeping their children safe. It is like Prisoners on that way. It’s determined to push us to consider what we think bumps in the night, and what we actually do about it. Terrifying at moments, it’s still pale in comparison to the evil that lurks in the heart of some of these men, high school students, etc. That’s the thing that always stands out to me: the danger in the shadows is never as bad as the danger that lurks in the hearts of men.
Stranger Things works because we care about the characters, and the story is well written. We care because it’s styled and packaged in a way that makes us feel nostalgic, allowing us to remember our childhoods and the movies we loved back then. We care because we want good to triumph over evil, and we want hope to win. Those are emotions lurking deep within all of us that resonate in what we watch, and Stranger Things knows just what to hit us with.
In the end, good will win when we stand together, and face down those things which we fear. It may take awhile, but in the end, that’s how stories end.