Directed by: Matt Duffer & Ross Duffer
Created by: Matt Duffer & Ross Duffer
Score by: Survive (Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein)
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Matthew Modine
Cast your mind back to the films you loved as a kid, the kind you will still sit and watch to this day and get the same kind of thrill – films like E.T., Jaws, The Goonies and Stand By Me. Thankfully, these are some of the few films that have remained untouched by Hollywood – no remakes, no reboots, they are as they have always been. But, imagine for a moment, taking all of your favourite parts of these films and combining them together to make some kind of ‘super-story’. Well, you don’t have to imagine because Netflix’s original series Stranger Things is hours of classic cinema-style story in eight binge-worthy episodes.
In 1983, our story begins – at a time when 22inch TV was the ultimate viewing experience and tales of science fiction captivated audiences – in the quiet, suburban town of Hawkins, Indiana, where four young friends: Mike, Will, Lucas and Dustin, are playing Dungeons and Dragons. It’s time for dinner and after 10 hours of play, the friends must go their separate ways. It is on this journey home that Will goes missing – no spoilers, as it’s the name of the first ‘chapter’ of the show. Running alongside this plot point is that of a laboratory break-out and the appearance of an unknown young girl, which, though seemingly unrelated to start, will come to mean a lot more to the story later on.
The opening episode of Stranger Things is not the best one. This isn’t unusual for a new series, but it could be a little disheartening for some viewers, as it collects together some of the biggest clichés in science fiction stories like a group of young friends, horny teenagers, faceless villains, a lax police attitude and broken light bulbs. However, stay with it and you will be rewarded with a fresh new series with an original feel and a story complete with so many twists and turns you might end up dizzy by the end. And there’s high praise for creators Matt and Ross Duffer, as they have managed to put together a child-led cast that aren’t in the least bit annoying – in fact they are utterly nerdy, hilarious, and show us all what it really means to be friends. Their friendship is tested when they stumble across a girl – who looks suspiciously like the lovechild of Deadpool and Negasonic Teenage Warhead – whilst out searching ‘Mirkwood’ for missing Will. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), as she is called, due to the ‘011’ tattoo on her forearm has been blessed with the extraordinary power of intense staring, which gives her the ambiguous abilities of a lethal Jedi and a universal HAM radio – but the real power in Brown’s performance is how she manages to project both immense strength and intense vulnerability simultaneously.
A spirited cast of characters, the younger members have the most screen time, from Mike, Eleven, Lucas and Dustin, hunting for Will, to Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), a social outcast, and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) who is navigating the rough road of high school, a bookish girl with a popular boyfriend in danger of losing sight of the person she is – yet all of the characters are brought together by Will’s disappearance and the strange things that are happening in its wake.
But, when the bad reception/interference monster begins to terrorise the town, it is Winona Ryder as Will’s fraught mother Joyce, who receives the brunt of its force, in what may be a career-best performance from Ryder. As a mother at the end of her thread, she walks a fine line between anxiety and insanity, and while everyone calls her crazy, she insists that her boy is out there somewhere, trapped by whoever or whatever has taken him. Surprisingly, she is one of the only parents who give a damn, as it seems that the eighties were a simpler time, when if a child disappears, no one really seems to worry about their own child’s safety. In the town of Hawkins, it seems that even the police barely care what’s going on. That is, except for one. David Harbour, who has built a career on small parts, proves that it in no means makes him a small actor, as he takes on the role of Police Chief Jim Hopper, a ‘big-city’ cop, grief-stricken by the loss of his daughter, determined to uncover the mysterious happenings of the town and find Will alive. The smoking, drinking, down-and-out Hopper, goes above and beyond the normal duties of the police, single-handedly taking on the creepy government operation who insist that they are not involved, while they cover up every little happening in the town, which of course doesn’t make them seem suspicious in the slightest.
With a strong and interesting story, there must be a moment taken to recognise the superb direction by the Duffer Brothers – stunning wide shots and a warm filter channel Spielberg’s work, giving the audience a sense of nostalgia that only adds to the viewing experience. Think of Stranger Things as being everything ’80s cinema wanted to achieve, but didn’t have the technology to realise – a thrilling mystery, with brilliant visual effects that not only entertains, but chills the audience with supernatural elements that aren’t for the very faint-hearted.
On top of all this, is the stellar soundtrack which combines classic ’80s hits, with ambient synth music that creates and perpetuates the mysterious tone of the show with hypnotic beats. Crafted by Austin-based Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein who make up synth band Survive, the soundtrack is getting just as much traction as the show itself – so in demand in fact, that Netflix are set to release the whole soundtrack in two parts – the first part is already out on iTunes with a CD release coming September 16th. The second installment will be released digitally August 19th and its CD release will be September 23rd, so you can buy and keep the entrancing tunes and listen to your heart’s content.
Leaving the show open for another series, I can only hope that Netflix picks it up sooner rather than later, as the danger with child-led series’ is that we don’t want to see the kids get too much older, and we don’t want them recast – but with the acclaim that the series is getting, I don’t think it should be too much of a worry.
All in all, I’d give Stranger Things a high 4.5 out of 5 – very entertaining and utterly thrilling, it’s a must see. And, if you’re looking for more to binge-watch in this same vein, give Steven Spielberg’s ten-episode sci-fi thriller, Taken, a go.