Pastel suits, sports cars and ‘staches that weren’t synonymous with sex offenders: The 1980s were a hugely different time. Engulfed in its own brand of pop-culture and synth-laden starry eyes, most tend to not look back too fondly on the questionable choices made in the infamous decade, but there can be no denying its impact on film. The predominant figures of the era still demand such reverence today, with Spielberg and Carpenter aiding in the creation of a lasting Sci-fi legacy that still permeates cinema.
Netflix’s Stranger Things pays perfect homage to 1980s cinema, resulting in a retro-fest that feels like an amalgamation of Stand By Me, The Goonies and any John Carpenter flick, while avoiding a sense of contrivance. It’s ostensibly a story about a missing child, but underneath the pretence it deals with different generations’ attempts at coping with loss and grief. Despite the scares, the threat and the suspense, the prime reason Stranger Things is as wonderful as it is, is because of the sense of adventure elicited from the group of kids that we follow. It’s more than an exercise in nostalgia, refusing to get bogged down in its admittedly cherry-picked influences and avoiding working merely as a tribute; instead Stranger Things finds its feet as a return to a certain brand of storytelling, reintroducing us to something seldom seen in the last 25 years.
It’s all very John Cougar Mellencamp at the start (well, sorta): a group of misfits in small-town Indiana defy conformity, spending their time unashamedly playing Dungeons & Dragons. It goes from ‘Jack and Diane’ to ‘Lonely Ol’ Night’ all too quickly though, as one of the group, Will (Noah Schnapp) goes missing under suspicious circumstances. As the town scrambles search parties together to find Will, the three remaining friends come across a wide-eyed girl with a shaven head who appears to possess supernatural abilities. While the three friends try to make sense of their new friendship, Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) descends onto a path of complete despair where her sanity appears to dissipate significantly, but are her claims as insane as everyone thinks?
A show’s reliance on its young cast can often prove to be its undoing, but Stranger Things finds a strange balance that falls decidedly between on-the-nose and endearing. They’re kids; they’re frustrating, petulant and obnoxious but their childlike wonder is what makes their adventure so easy to enjoy. They’re cast exceptionally, and the dynamic each individual character brings to the table succeeds in rounding off the group perfectly, especially with El(even)’s introduction. Dustin’s quick-wit and absent-toothed lisp make him welcome comic relief amongst an understandably uptight group. Lucas’ venture in mini-Nam territory is a fun hark-back to 80s cinema, while Mike’s insistence and growing relationship with El causes tension between the three of them in an already stressful time. They’re a group that fit together seamlessly, whilst their turmoil and frustration are made believable by a group of talented young actors (and actress).
Winona Ryder is flung to the forefront of the series, playing the grieving mother who’s convinced her son isn’t dead. The majority of her screen-time is spent in a frantic, nigh-on unhinged state of worry that sees her character devolve into a stereotype at points. She’s most effective when her internal battle comes into fruition and she’s forced to show the resilient and defiant side of being a mother. That aspect of the character is best expressed when she’s alongside her eldest son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), a social outcast who spends more time with his camera than people his age. He’s a much maligned misfit, much like his younger brother’s group of friends, but at an age where his peers are merciless in their mocking. Their relationship, apparently already fragile, continues to dissipate along with Joyce’s sanity, culminating in a shouting match in the street. The tension between them, and their apparent coping mechanisms are evidence of the generational gap seen throughout the series.
Millie Brown as Eleven is a phenomenon, bringing an effortlessly poignant portrayal of a character that could’ve fallen very flat. Despite not saying much, the range of emotions on show from her is enthralling and through Eleven’s eyes, we enter a new, terrifying world where she’s burdened by the impending doom only a select few are aware of. It’s hard to argue which world is scariest, when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) enters “the upside down” in search of her friend Barb, it conjures a sense of dizzying realism whereby these terrifying monsters are physically present, compared to El’s dimension-crossing communications. A creeping sense of paranoia offsets any semblance of normality we might have once felt. This other, hellish world is seldom seen in any other capacity than a slimy, John Carpenter-esque entrance to the world, and a reflection of the world we know engulfed in what looks like falling ash. It’s a world away from Hawkins, Indiana, but these worlds are growing ever closer.
Stranger Things works best as a call-to-adventure for nostalgic adults, acting as a glimpse into their childhood when they found themselves absorbed in cinema and when fiction felt like it may somehow still be real. Much like the campaign of Dungeons & Dragons that the kids are playing, it’s an unravelling quest, but it’s not necessarily one that you would want to be part of. So watching idly, behind a cushion or a partner seems more ideal, but equally as engrossing. While some things aren’t adequately explained throughout the course of Stranger Things’ 8 episode run, and the portrayal of the demonic otherworld isn’t ever afforded a sufficient explanation or reason for existing, in the end this only adds to the sense of terror that engulfs the series’ narrative. The inconsistencies and lack of understanding of this other-worldly place only increases the fear for the audience (you know it’s bad when the scientists don’t know how to deal with it.)
It’s a series that delights in its pop-culture and a nostalgic excursion, proving to be a perfect homage to those it takes influence from. My own burgeoning obsession with 80s culture feels wholly supplemented by Stranger Things but it succeeds as more than a love-letter to the decade; it’s a story that stands on its own two feet and keeps its hooks in throughout its short 8 episode run. Everything unravels seamlessly, with the plot progressing at a pace that will keep everyone involved. Despite being in exceptional company, Stranger Things is arguably Netflix’s strongest endeavour, or at least the most befitting to a growing-platform where creators seem to have complete creative control. Its imperfections only add to its charm, culminating in an incredibly sincere piece of television. Stranger Things is as its name suggests: far stranger than most things we’re accustomed to watching, and I for one welcome that with open arms. Roll on season 2.