A few years ago, J.J. Abrams reminded us of the magic that filled the high-concept films of the 1970s and 1980s in Super 8, a picture that wore its Spielbergian influences on its sleeve. With STRANGER THINGS, the Duffer Brothers pay a similarly conscious tribute to Amblin films of the era, setting their period thriller in 1983 and toying with many of its conventions. What is so surprising is just how simultaneously original and familiar this feels at every turn.
After spotting a strange creature on his bike ride home in small-town Indiana, 12-year old Will Byers goes missing. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) might just be stricken mad with grief, but she’s also convinced that Will isn’t far from home. Will’s friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are also sure they can find Will, especially when the mysterious shaven-haired girl Eleven (Millie Brown) turns at the same time Will vanishes. As police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) begins his investigation, he soon finds that he has stumbled onto something much bigger than a single missing child.
The essential ingredient of the Amblin films was the sense of wonder, and the notion that the everyday could become fantastic with a simple twist of fate. Like The Goonies, the young heroes are predisposed to fantasy, opening on a group of boys who are in the middle of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Indeed, the rest of the series very much follows a dual structure that owes as much to D & D as it does to Amblin, and it’s through this that a kind of turn-based tension emerges, where each of the individual players has something to offer, but the puzzle only makes sense when they come together.
The cast themselves feels like they could have stepped straight out of a 1980s film, especially the terrific David Harbour as the broken cop who finds redemption through searching for the missing child. Harbour, who did not start his professional career until the late 1990s, perfectly captures an intangible quality of 1980s stars, something that is equally true of Natalia Dyer, Joe Keery Charlie Heaton, who act as the essential teen romantic love triangle. The youngest stars have been chosen well, from Wolfhard as the awkward Mike to the toothless character of Matarazzo, another essential ingredient of youthful geek enthusiasm. Yet it’s Winona Ryder, herself a star of 80s fantasy fare like Beetlejuice, who owns every scene she is in. The sometimes overwrought desperation and determination of her character is palpable, playing a magnificent wreck that is all the more impressive for her totally being in the right.
For many viewers, it’s the period accuracy that will be the biggest drawcard, and it goes way beyond the impeccable costuming and hairstyles. The opening title font sets the scene, a combination of a Stephen King made-for-TV thriller and a pulp novel. The moody score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein sounds like it was one of John Carpenter’s lost themes, punctuated by an eclectic series of period music (from Jefferson Airplane to Echo and the Bunnymen or The Clash) that will elicit smiles and chills in equal measure from the audience. Walls are lined with posters for Jaws and Poltergeist, nodding directly to its forebears. Yet if it was just pastiche, STRANGER THINGS wouldn’t have half the impact that it does: moody and muted colours segue into a horrific world dripping with genuine terror, and the creature designs are something Guillermo del Toro would conjure up in a fever dream.
Rarely does a season of a show feel so completely satisfying in its own right, but also leaves us wanting even more. The short format of the season rips through its tight eight episodes, never giving it a chance to overstay its welcome. Instead, the pace maintains its tension for the entire duration, creating a realistic world with fantastic occurrences, and conjures up a conclusion that both ties up the main narrative threads while reminding us that some questions are best left unanswered.
2016 | US | Executive Producers: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen | Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine | Distributor: Netflix | Episodes: 8 | Rating:★★★★½ (9/10)