STRANGER THINGS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 6 hours 38 minutes

Directed by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy,

Written by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Jessica Mecklenburg, Justin Doble, Alison Tatlock & Jessie Nickson-Lopez

Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp & Joe Keery

It’s been out for over a year and I’ve finally gotten around to watching Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS, a homage-filled love letter to 80s horror and science-fiction. Created by identical twin brothers who really love Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, STRANGER THINGS is addicting entertainment from beginning to end. It’s safe to say that if you loved 2011’s 80s throwback SUPER 8, then you’ll probably love STRANGER THINGS too. This is like somebody threw FIRESTARTER, E.T., STAND BY ME, and other 80s horror/sci-fi creations into a blender and pureed them into a fine cinematic concoction!

The time is November 1983. After playing an intense game of D&D with his friends, 12-year-old Will Buyers (Noah Schnapp) disappears into thin air. This isn’t a simple kidnapping or abduction, because there were strange lights on the night that Will went missing and there also might be an unidentified creature on the loose. Meanwhile, a little girl with a shaved head, simply known as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), shows up at a nearby diner and is being hunted by a very dangerous secret organization. Soon enough, Will’s concerned friends (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) run into Eleven, Will’s frantic mother (Winona Ryder) experiences odd happenings in her home, and the depressed town police chief (David Harbour) finds himself caught up in a deadly conspiracy…and I haven’t even mentioned Barb (a fan favorite for some reason).

STRANGER THINGS’s first season has a lot going on within its fast-paced eight episodes. There are many subplots that weave themselves in and out of each other, connecting to a much bigger narrative. At first, it seems like this season contains lots of little mysteries, but these little mysteries make up one large sci-fi adventure. I found myself struggling to describe this season’s premise in one paragraph, because so much stuff happens in this show. There’s never a dull moment, even in the spots where the series slows down to develop its characters and builds itself up during the first episode.

It’s worth mentioning that STRANGER THINGS is astounding on a technical level. The cinematography looks phenomenal and the effects work is of the same quality that you typically see in summer blockbusters. The Duffer brothers clearly had careful eyes towards their creation and Netflix gave them the financial means to bring their 80s-centric vision to life. STRANGER THINGS also knocks it out of the park in its soundtrack, which consists of lots of great 80s tunes that never get distracting in a style-over-substance manner. Song selections are put into the background noise, hammer home the emotions of certain scenes (especially in the episode three’s emotional climax), and even make their way in as plot points. At any rate, STRANGER THING’s use of music is pretty damned ingenious.

Solid narratives that pay loving homage to 80s entertainment and great production values wouldn’t be nearly as effective without believable performances and well-developed characters inhabiting them. STRANGER THINGS delivers in its performances across the board. Finn Wolfhard is compelling as young leader Mike, while Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin serve as Will’s two other friends/sidekicks. Winona Ryder sells her role as a desperate mother who’s being driven to the edge by paranoia, coming off as a nutjob to anyone around her and yet actually experiencing pretty strange things. David Harbour plays Jim Hopper with a combination of biting sarcasm and a tragic backstory.

Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, and Shannon Purser make up a teenage subplot that is also connected to the strange supernatural happenings. Though this subplot threatens to become clichéd and is easily the weakest spot of an otherwise stellar season, it does have its charms and doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong. It’s just a bit too familiar and sticks out in a show that seems to have been made based off nostalgic love for other stories and movies. At any rate, Shannon Purser’s Barb has become a fan favorite for some reason. I don’t see why, but maybe I’m just not seeing the charm about this nervous, nerdy ginger who’s barely in the show.

STRANGER THING’s real show-stealer comes in young Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven (a.k.a. El). With only occasional lines of dialogue, Eleven somehow becomes the most fleshed out character of the entire season. We see flashbacks that give us ever-emerging details about her traumatic past. I felt sorry for El and, at the same time, rooted for her to kick some ass. When she lays down the supernatural smackdown on a few bullies and ultimately comes into her own as a strong young heroine, I was ecstatic. El was easily my favorite character of the entire show and she also reignited my hunger for Eggo waffles (you’ll understand when/if you watch the series).

STRANGER THINGS is pretty friggin’ great and lives up to its much-hyped reputation. This first season is filled with great effects, a rockin’ soundtrack, solid acting, and fast-paced storytelling that lovingly references loads of 80s horror/sci-fi. Though it might be a tad too homage heavy for some viewers, this very well could go down as one of Netflix’s best series. My only minor complaint comes from the angsty teenage subplot that seems to stick out in the midst of everything else, but I loved STRANGER THINGS through and through. If you haven’t watched this show yet and you’re a fan of horror/sci-fi, then jump on this immediately!

Grade: A

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