If you heard anything about the Netflix drama Stranger Things about a young boy in a small town disappearing under creepy, otherworldly circumstances, it puts your knowledge of 80’s films to the test by referencing everything from E.T. to Akira and cherry picking elements from classic Stephen King stories.
Here’s why the 80’s throwback works in Stranger Things. Compared to the state of the world today, just take a look at the current news headlines, it’s hard not think of the 80’s as a more simpler, innocent time. Stranger Things embodies escapist entertainment. There isn’t a hard-hitting social commentary it wants to say. At heart, it’s a straight forward coming of age drama that has some supernatural things percolating, mostly in the backdrop in the first half of the eight episode season.
In light of the 80’s nostalgia, Stranger Things sees the era through rose-colored glasses, choosing to remember the good old days and eschewing the cheesy or less favorable parts of the decade. As a result, the soundtrack contains alternative rock songs from The Clash and Joy Division rather than let’s say Tiffany’s mall anthem I think we’re alone now. The kids make cassette mix tapes for each other but wouldn’t be caught dead in a mullet, shoulder pads or leg warmers.
So while Stranger Things is a warm nostalgic homage, I wouldn’t describe it as a hodgepodge which would connote it’s a confusing, random mixture. Rather, the nods to 80’s films are cohesively integrated into the story as well as visually in a manner which doesn’t sorely stick out if you don’t happen to catch the reference. If you think of the era as a character in itself, Stranger Things never breaks character. From the haircuts to the stylized retro fonts the 80’s setting is airtight, you would have to nitpick for moments that’ll pull you out of the experience.
Stranger Things brings attention to how much of modern storytelling relies upon technology to push the story forward. The characters cannot use cell phones, text messaging or the internet to get up to speed. For example, when Chief Hopper (David Harbour) wants to research about the shady Hawkins Research facility, he has to go the library instead of googling it. The plot moves from A to B in a clear, logical fashion albeit these characters, especially the kids, are very smart for being able to piece together important information to get to the next part of the story.
One of the bright spots are the geeky, dungeon and dragons playing group of middle school friends. The strongest actor of the young cast is Gaten Matarazoo who plays the rambunctious, Star Wars referencing Dustin. Matarazoo’s two front baby teeth are missing causing him to speak with an amusing lisp when he has to make a S sound.
The boys’ camaraderie and humorous chemistry is a lot like Stand By Me, but doesn’t quite have that melancholia undertone of having come of age just yet. The most clichéd story line belongs to older sibling Nancy Wheeler, a buttoned down girl with good grades dating a so-called bad boy, though it culminates on a refreshing note.
The show’s lead actress Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, the single mother of the missing child. More often than not, Ryder finds the right balance of portraying a mother losing her mind and coping with loss but there are scenes she overplays it just a bit.
The best adult character is Chief Hopper, played solidly by David Harbour. He’s reminiscent of a lot of leading 80’s male characters because he directly confronts situations head on. Hopper is a “take the bull by the horns” type character. Some of the parents are clueless, the show makes a point to poke fun at it, so it’s satisfying to have at least a couple of grown up characters in Hopper and Joyce who are smart and the audience can root for.
I’m perfectly fine if Stranger Things is a self-contained one and done series; however, Netflix will undoubtedly green light a follow-up season. Stranger Things has got the drama, the science fiction and the horror to tickle the taste buds of a broad audience. Thematically the ideas and film references are on the surface to glean. Like the small town where Stranger Things is set, America in the 80’s felt relatively insulated. The show makes a knowing quip it was a time when people still believed their government looked out for their best interest and protects them. If the kids in Stranger Things could see how things are today, they might think we are living in a topsy-turvy world.