If you want one good example why television and long-format stories are continually trumping modern cinematic endeavors, look no further than The Duffer Brothers‘ Netflix series, Stranger Things. When thinking of all the positive and glowing attributes this tiny show encapsulates, it’s almost too much to put into words. The feelings and emotions you’ll have experiencing this exceptional show cannot easily be transcribed (hence this lengthy review). That may not make sense, but don’t worry about it too much; once you’ve seen the show, you will more than likely know what we mean.
In just eight episodes, Stranger Things tells a perfectly paced story, replete with a wonderful ensemble cast you care about almost instantly, and does more with each 45 minute segment (in revealing and building important story beats, showcasing character development, etc.) than most 90 or 120 minute films.
Of course it helps when you have somebody like Shawn Levy on board who, as seen in the Night at the Museum series, or his pugilistic robot adventure, Real Steel, effortlessly grafts emotions onto the most unremarkable elements. That said, showrunners Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer (whose contributions are more than three-quarters of the entire production), along with Levy as executive producer (and director of two episodes), show how great a narrative can be when creative minds divide and conquer.
A large amount of the success can be chalked up to the nearly unrecognizable cast. Funny enough, the only big name is Winona Ryder, and, following her fall from acting grace, she’s a major character here. As the grieving Ms. Byers, she’s central to the story, but the show is more about the children and the chief of police as they attempt to find her son.
There’s adventure, friendship, humor, horror, and spectacle, even on a modest budget. It’s all so well structured that were this to, instead, be a film you would probably lose a good chunk of what makes this work: exposition. It’s actually very minimal in terms of what brought this great threat to the town, but the exchanges between Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) bring a lot of gravity to the story and, again, suck you in almost immediately.
Of the fresh-faced cast, the kids are undoubtedly standouts (especially Brown, who is an incredible young actress), but the most fascinating, and exciting part of the show is police chief Hopper (David Harbour). His arc comes exceptionally fast but, like a light switch, we see he had the potential to be a hero all along. Watching the show, you almost get the feeling that if there were an Indiana Jones reboot (blasphemy, we know), it’s a good bet no one would mind seeing Harbour in the role. Wishful thinking, sure, but remember the name because once you’re done with the show, you’re going to want to see Harbour in everything (actually he’s already been in everything – read our interview with David where we talk about his impressive career and this show).
Stranger Things puts a human element on this fantastic sci-fi story. Of course, that is a no-brainer when it comes to making tangible emotional connections with the audience, but this show really and truly does it well. These kids are not sarcastic, nor are they self-aware. They are mostly innocent and happy with their life right until the moment their friend goes missing. They come across like real kids, but their determination to find William (and the bits of infighting along the way, even after rescuing the telepath, Eleven) seems so legitimate and endearing. It really makes you wish you were twelve years old again – partly because of the nostalgia, but mostly because it’s a whole lot of fun. And who wouldn’t want friends like these?
Even side characters get enough attention and a good portion of the plot to deal with. While not 100% integral to the story’s resolution, they’re all involved and help shape the story in meaningful ways. What does get a little disappointing is that we don’t get the full story on the Hawkins National Laboratory or what else they were up to prior to causing this level of trouble to the small town.
Sure, what we’re told about the “bad guys” is perfunctory, and surface-level. Yet the story doesn’t require everything be spoon-fed, so the Duffers can focus more on the kids which doesn’t detract from the overall experience. That said, there are still a lot of questions that should be at least hinted at being answered. Where are the previous ten MK Ultra candidates? Is there a Number 012, or 013, or 014 being groomed/developed somewhere? If “The Upside Down” is a shadow version of our world, how is there just one creature inhabiting all of it? How is the Demogorgon able to break the walls between the two worlds? Maybe we don’t need those answers, but it definitely helps complete the story.
Now whether or not you were a child of the ’80s, there is some intangible magic in this tiny story that will hook you in, quickly. But it’s not manipulation, it’s expert storytelling. You might have seen all the praise for this show on social media claiming that the Duffer brothers channeled their inner Spielberg. While set in the 1983, and featuring a smattering of elements that are as fun as they are nostalgic, this is not a Spielberg clone. There are a good number of properties that don’t live up to the hype, but take our word for it. This is everything they say, and then some.
It’s possible to judge the greatness of giants by the observing their imitators. Concerning the above-mentioned Spielberg, the best we’ve seen was J.J. Abrams’ 2011 throwback feature, yet we’d go so far as to say this was better than Super 8 (including a more satisfying ending). Further, the Duffer brothers’ love letter is able to stand on its own two feet even if, yes, they cherry picked just a few elements from hallowed ’80s films.
Sure, you could say this is a little bit of Jaws, a little bit of Close Encounters, a little bit of E.T. But the story of four pre-teen friends – and the one friend whose abduction sets the whole narrative in motion and ultimately throws the town in along with the mystery – does what more shows and films should be doing. It has a lot of fun with the material regardless of how dire the straits. That’s not to say anyone takes things lightly. There are heavy stakes in this game, but it’s enjoyable watching even in scary, tense, and/or life-threatening situations. So, yeah, kind of like Jaws.
All that to say, Stranger Things is an extraordinary piece of work. It’s important to note that it’s not nostalgia which drives this because, for instance, you could thoroughly love a film like Dazed and Confused not having grown up in that era. Yet having lived through the ’80s myself, I can say that what it did was enhance the story, not make it. That said, if you grew up on sci-fi like this, Stranger Things will grab you by your DNA and not let let go…and you won’t want it to. Do yourself a favor, carve out 6 hours and binge watch this ASAP! You will not be sorry.