While I usually review older movies, there’s the occasional, TV show, book, etc, that demands my attention, and propels me to spill some ink. Stranger Things is one of them. Netflix newest series took my Facebook feed by storm, and what I’d read was so compelling I had no alternative but to check it out. While I’m glad I did, I haven’t fallen into the “Best thing since sliced bread” camp as many I know have. That has everything to do with me, however, and nothing to do with them.
Before I dive in, I guess it should be said, that there will probably be some minor spoilers, so if you haven’t finished watching, or haven’t started, be warned now. Having said that, Stranger Things isn’t exactly filled with devious plot twists or unexpected turns (not important ones anyway), and after a couple of episodes you can guess where it’s going, but it’s truly the journey and not the destination that makes Stranger Things tick.
First and foremost, this is the series Stephen King probably wishes he had written, as it has his DNA splattered all over it like the floor of a porno theater. Certainly, there are many other inspirations on display, but King is the major honoree (as if the font and the title isn’t a clue in itself). In that respect, it gets almost everything right, as I can imagine this as a spiritual successor to It in many ways.
Set in 1983, Stranger Things is as much a love letter to King as it is a very romanticized trip down memory lane. In fact, I think how much you like ST will depend on how much nostalgia you have for growing up in the 80’s. I was 17/18 then, so slightly older than the main characters, so my nostalgia for that era isn’t as strong as others. The first of eight episodes opens with a group of preteens playing Dungeons and Dragons. If that fact doesn’t tell you anything then the poster for The Thing hanging on the wall in the background probably does. These were geeks and nerds when they weren’t cool. They were me, and they were you.
They were/are us. The outcast, the misfits, or as King called them in It, The Loser’s Club. On the way home one of them goes missing, setting the stage for the rest of the series, that at times is funny, scary, dramatic, heartwarming and gut wrenching. So long as you don’t think too hard about it. Before I get into the things that didn’t work for me, let’s talk about the things that did.
First of all the acting is nothing short of amazing. Yes, I know that’s a pretty lofty word but in the case of Stranger Things, it’s well deserved. Winona Ryder plays the mother of the missing boy, Will, and shows why she’s always been one of my favorite actresses. If she seems a bit over the top, well it’s all in keeping with her character, who very easily could have been played as a one-dimensional single mom who’s a bit on the loony side. Instead, Ryder imbues her with a determination and ferocity that propels her through the series. There are scenes with her that will break your heart and bring a tear to your eye.
All of the kids hold their own with Ryder, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest and that’s Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Elle. Without spoiling her characters background, Elle speaks very little and relies on her feelings and expressions to make herself understood. She also is a combination of King’s iconic characters Carrie, and Charlie from Firestarter. Her performance has to be seen to be believed. I can think of only a handful of adult actresses who could have done what Millie has done here, she’s just that incredible.
Finn Wolfhard as the leader of the group, Mike, is also outstanding. His performance is very nuanced, and it’s often the very little things that have the greatest effect, For example, in one scene where he’s talking to Elle, he gives the tiniest bit of an embarrassed smile while trying to pretend he doesn’t have a crush on her. The other two members of the gang, Lucas and Dustin are just as strong but don’t have the presence that Finn does. I also want to note, and without sound as if I’m being judgmental, but these guys look like real kids. Too often we get these perfect looking progeny who has never had a blemish or a bruise, with straight white teeth. Hell, Dustin is missing a good portion of his, but they’re made more relatable because they remind you of kids you grew up with.
The others in the series range from adequate to wonderful, the strongest being Charlie Heaton as Will’s older, loner brother Jonathan. Of all the characters in the show, I related to him the most, and really wanted to see more of his backstory. His unrequited love interest, Nancy is skillfully portrayed by Natalia Dyer. Here’s the case of another character that could have simply been one dimensional given far more life than the script might indicate. Her changes and growth seem natural and not simply plot devices to further the story. She is also the sister of group leader Mike, and unfortunately, their parents are really relegated to the background. The father reminds me of someone in Clu Gallagher from Nightmare on Elm Street 2 cosplay costume, and even sounds like him.
The series looks beautiful and is well shot. Even though this is as much an homage to the 80’s as anything, I’m still reminded of Twin Peaks a bit, which is definitely not a bad thing. It’s hugely entertaining for the most part, and really a must see for all the genre geeks. For the non-geek crowd, I’m not sure how well it will play.
With that said, Stranger Things is far from perfect. I found the 80’s references a bit too forced at times and inserted almost to remind you what year it takes place. I found the pacing to be very uneven as well, and minor subplots stuffed in simply to pad out the run time for an episode. Episode 7 was the strongest for me, and that clocked in at only 40 minutes or so. I know others had no problem with it, but I think things like Nancy’s romance with Steve really could have been skipped. In fact, Steve probably could have been eliminated completely and not missed. It’s not that Joe Keery does a bad job, in fact, he’s quite good, but his character is the weakest of the lot, and when he actually has a change of heart it does feel contrived and fake.
There are moments in Stranger Things that are emotionally pitch perfect, scenes that will have you make you nodding your head in understanding. It also has scenes which undermine those near perfect ones. And that certainly echoes a King novel as well. One of the biggest issues I had was Matthew Modine’s character. Even with his David Cronenbergesque fright wig hair, we never get any sense of evil or malevolence from him. He may not be the ultimate villain (a really kick ass creature is), but he’s so underused, it’s almost criminal. Modine has always been one of my favorite actors, but here, it seems like he’s sleepwalking through the role.
As I began with, Stranger Things is an homage to King and the 80’s, but it’s also something a little bit more. A little bit darker. Strip away the homages to movies, writers and periods of time, and what you’re left with is the ultimate geek fantasy of revenge. Bullies get their comeuppance, the town is saved, and we even have a little romance along the way. I don’t love the show as much as others do, but I do like it a lot, and if there’s a season two I’ll be right there binge watching, just give Matthew Modine more to do if he makes it that far.