Recently I spent a week with my family at a beach condo on the Gulf of Mexico. It was a time full of laughs, fun, and plenty of beach bumming. But something unexpected and extraordinary happened during our trip. I actually watched the first season of the much talked about “Stranger Things”.
To be clear, I didn’t watch it because of any built-up excitement or anticipation. I started watching it simply because I had heard so much about the series and it felt like I was missing out on what could be considered a television phenomenon. Oh, and our condo happened to have Netflix on its big screen TV so that made the decision even easier.
This probably comes as no surprise, but I’m not a television guy. I only write about movies therefore this review will have a movie-like form. But with “Stranger Things” that actually works better that an episode-by-episode breakdown. Yes, Season 1 is broken into chapters with each picking up right where the previous one left off. But all eight chapters/episodes work beautifully as one cohesive whole (very movie-like).
“Stranger Things” is the brainchild of twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. They not only conceived the story but wrote the first two chapters of Season 1 and directed all but two. Set in 1983, their series takes place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The story is launched by the mysterious disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). We’re introduced to a host of well-developed characters who are unknowingly being drawn towards the strange circumstances surrounding his disappearance.
First among the characters is Will’s mother Joyce played by an exceptional Winona Ryder. Folks around town think she’s snapping under the weight of grief. Even her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) doesn’t buy into her insistence that Will is trying to communicate with her through supernatural means. Will’s three best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) set out to do their own search and in the process encounter a special young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) who is on the run from some pretty bad people.
Perhaps the most fascinating character is Police Chief Jim Hopper (a superb David Harbour). He’s leading the official investigation despite carrying some pretty heavy baggage of his own. His personal life may be a mess, but he knows how to work a case and what he discovers goes far beyond one missing child. Watching Harbour really dig into this character is one of the season’s biggest strengths.
Several other characters have meaningful roles. Natalia Dyer plays Mike’s older sister Nancy and Joe Keery plays Nancy’s new flame Steve. Their story starts as a fairly familiar teen drama but quickly goes in a much different direction. And Matthew Modine plays Martin Brenner, a scientist with Hawkins Laboratory. Little is known about him or the shadowy operation he’s running just outside of town.
When watching “Stranger Things” so many comparisons immediately come to mind. Perhaps the most satisfying is classic Steven Spielberg meets Chris Carter’s “The X-Files”. You see the influences of Spielberg’s “E.T.” and “Close Encounters”; Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and Stephen King just for starters. And I especially love the cool X-Files vibe. Clandestine experiments, deep cover-ups, government conspiracies – it’s all there.
And of course, how can I not mention something the show is perhaps best known for – the countless 80s pop culture references. My teen years ran through that decade so spotting them is a lot of fun. But they aren’t just added for nostalgia alone. They really do help create a convincing setting for the Duffer brothers and company to play in. And sometimes they play directly into the story. Take Cold War paranoia, something very real during the 80s and cleverly woven into the plot.
“Stranger Things” is a fascinating stew that juggles numerous genres and influences. Yet it all comes together to form an enthralling eight-episode television season that plays like one well-paced and impressively conceived movie. It does a great job of introducing and developing characters while featuring several stand-out performances (Harbour, Brown, and Ryder specifically). And perhaps best of all, it builds real excitement for Season 2, even for a ‘strictly movies’ guy like me. I consider that to be the highest praise!
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS