Reviews: Stranger Things

So much more than a shallow nostalgia-fest.

I was born in the late 80's so I can say for sure that my judgement of this show is not clouded at all by any sense of nostalgia. With that in mind I feel able to judge without rose-tinted glasses.

Behind the 80's veneer, Stranger Things is an excellent mix of horror, sci-fi and drama, combining tight plotting and pacing, creepy and suspenseful scenes and wonderful acting.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly the kids. Between them they utterly convince as a gaggle of nerdy losers with dumb friendship rules, precocious crushes and lame jokes. But they also show impressive emotional depth when confronted with the loss of a friend.

Surprisingly for this kind of story, the kids are not the only ones doing anything about the threat. Plotlines about a group of teenagers looking for the monster and some adults uncovering the conspiracy run side by side, and these plots overlap and diverge as necessary. This ensures the story avoids throwing in pointless conflict and twists just to drag out the running time.

The teens start off very stereotypically, but after their world is shaken up by events they gradually morph into well-rounded characters.

The adults, mainly David Harbour and Winona Ryder, also impress. Some have criticised Ryder for an overly-hysterical performance but I found it very easy to empathise with her character and really feel the suffering she goes through.

If I had to be negative, I would say the CGI monster doesn't always live up to the menace surrounding it. The fact that it always seems to be obscured by flashing lights and shadows betrays how little confidence the directors had in their own creation. I wonder why they didn't call up noted creepy monster actor Doug Jones and slap some rubber on him, as it would have been a lot more convincing. In Season 2 while the 'Shadow Monster' looks otherworldly enough to be excused, its minions look particularly fake, especially as they get a lot more screen time than Season 1's creature. A real shame.

In addition, Season 2 feels more like an extension of Season 1 to me in terms of plot, more like "Season 1.5." While still great, I think Season 3 will need to come up with something other than 'We gotta save Will!' to keep it interesting.

Other than that, Stranger Things is an all-round brilliant piece of television and worth watching whether you know anything about the 80's or not.

Imperfect nostalgia bait, but succeeds wildly anyway through simply being good television.

...So, now that the second season's already out, and everyone's already watched it, and everyone and their dog has already weighed in on how good it was, I think I'll add my objectively-pointless opinion to the pile before starting on season two.

So, Season 1 of Stranger Things is a really good show, and you should watch it. It's not super-long, so there's no commitment anxiety, the 80's nostalgia's not replacing actual quality, and the child acting's really, really good. Those're the things that initially scared me away, so don't let 'em scare you if they have up til now.

First, elephant in the room here. I tore up Gone Home for leaning too heavily on nostalgia bait, and I'm about to heap praise on a show that features a lot of it. Is this base hypocrisy? ...No.

Bluntly, the weakest part of this show is also the nostalgia-bait-iest: the teen plot. It never fails to feel like a lame intrusion onto the other stories for at least the first half of the show, and it supplies insufficient pay-off for the finale. It's the only plot whose characters could be convincingly snipped out of the show entire without affecting the overall story, and the only one whose characters feel like they've come out of a period film rather than, you know, just living in the period. It does improve in the second half of the show, when a particularly poorly-written character experiences a moment of surprising redemption, but that doesn't excuse the fact that it's also the only part of the show that feels like it's only there because, hey, 80's movies did this, right?

And Winona Ryder. I don't necessarily blame her for the way her character often comes across; she's definitely likable and sympathetic. Joyce is not an unwelcome intrusion the way the teen characters are. But she is also not particularly well-written, and plays the whole Hysterical Woman thing a bit too pat. How much of this is the writing and how much the actress is beyond my skill to tell.

Beyond that, everything else works very, very well, and does so for reasons beyond "80's nostalgia's big now, right?" The synth score is just the right kind of pulse-pounding mood music to enhance the show. The other three major storylines, besides the teen plot, are well-handled and converge perfectly. The story, while obviously inspired by other works of 80's fiction, goes out of its way to try to forge its own identity, instead of just copying off previous works' homework. All the acting is top-tier, again, including all the child actors. And it's paced juuuust right, especially the second half, with no "filler" episodes. If you have a Netflix account, don't miss this one.

...Okay, fine, one last nitpick. Shouldn't the faceless monster that drags you into its home dimension to play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse be the "crypt thing" rather than the "Demogorgon?" It doesn't even have two heads!

We\'re Going to Need a Bigger Audience

When it comes to tv we all hate kids. In adult dramas, if there are even any children at all, they serve to simply be a burden. They get into danger, forcing the adults to go wandering into the zombie infested mine shaft. They don’t have anything to say, other than make the occasional, smart-arse, precocious one liner. Hell they all even seem to look the same; white, mop-headed and blandly cute. One of the most striking things about Stranger Things is that despite having troublesome, wise cracking, mopheaded kids, it still somehow manages to write its children well enough to show just how embarrassingly short-sighted and wasteful other writers tend to be when it comes to putting children in stories.

I am reaching to find anything bad to say about Stranger Things, the all new Stephen King-esque thriller story by way of 80s Spielberg movies. The only one I can land on is the big bad monster of the series. It looks kind of dumb and the CGI isn’t terribly convincing. It’s made even more apparent when characters regularly refer to movies like Poltergeist or The Thing, which have far more convincing special effects despite being 40 odd years older. Fortunately the monster is barely on screen, and the series effectively hides the monster most of the time through flickering lightbulbs, cribbed from the likes of Jaws.

As far as negatives, that’s about it. Otherwise, Stranger Things is an extremely competent drama about a sleepy town that is being preyed upon by a mysterious being, and about how groups of kids, teens and adults each try to combat it at their own level. Its strength lies in treating these characters as full characters, and not just plot devices. The kids are all plausible and sensibly written, each with distinct personalities and views, and that is what makes them feel less like the fleshy, whiny mcguffins as in other stories. It is Winona Rider though who steals the show as a frantic, heartbreakingly desperate mother. No one has ever seen Rider play a woman over 18 (don't believe anyone who says they have, they lie), so it is a complete surprise to see her fit so naturally into a role unlike any other she has done before.

What I like best of all is the show’s tone perfect recreation of 80s movies, with a gorgeous synth soundtrack and a workman like approach to the story telling that means the story never gets too bogged down or compromise on the atmosphere. The show doesn’t even fall into the usual drama trap of dragging on its suspense story over too many episodes, condensing itself down into dense season of eight. If you are looking for a series that is quick and easy to blast through – look no further.

Near perfect

Stranger Things is just as good as you’ve heard. The series is at once horrifying, suspenseful, exciting, and heartwarming. Steeped in the popular culture of the 1980s, it draws on countless sources including Dungeons & Dragons, The Goonies, Alien, E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, X-Files, and numerous Stephen King novels, ranging from IT to Carrie to Stand By Me and everything in between. And if that veneer of 80s media sometimes makes the story and characters a bit predictable, the mystery, the score, and ultimately the cast all combine to make the show better than the sum of its parts.The format of the series allows for a great deal of character development that does wonders to break what otherwise might be flat 80s archetypes.

Nancy begins the show as a Mary Sue. By the midpoint of the season, Nancy evolves into a strong and confident young woman. Joe Keery as Steve changes into a man standing up for his friends.

But if the teens are starring in a 1980s horror film, it’s the younger group that really shines. The standout is Eleven, who is at once relatable and otherworldly. At first almost mute and as skittish as a wild deer, Brown imbues her character with tragic loss and unexpected heroism in equal measure in a star making role. Her counterpart is Gaten Matarazzo (who previously appeared in an episode of The Blacklist) as Dustin, easily the most likable of the four boys. The other members of the group, while not exhibiting quite as much depth, are still fun to watch. Ultimately, both Finn Wolfhard as Mike and Caleb Mc Laughlin as Lucas are earnest in their roles that you can forgive their lack of character development. The younger actors are interesting and fun without being insufferable or annoying.

Hopper has greater depth than other characters in his mold. Driven by grief, he reveals himself to be capable of making sacrifices as the story goes forward while also being possessed of a genuine desire to unravel the mystery. Winona Ryder portrays Joyce Byers as a struggling single mother battling with sorrow, and while her performance veers into ham territory at times, it works well as she becomes increasingly unhinged. Matthew Modine lacks any deeper motivation beyond pursing Eleven.

Aside from the cast, the music—which is a mix of 80s hits and electronic atmospheric tones which draw inspiration from the music of John Carpenter films—does a wonderful job of setting the mood. The costumes also deserve praise for capturing the feel of the decade. The cinematography and effects increase the scare factor considerably, particularly in the first few episodes, with close ups and flickering shadows that make the seemingly normal town seem alien and unnerving.

Stranger Things is a love letter to the 1980s.The story might leave too much unresolved for some viewers, but none of the minor flaws detract from the charm and excitement of the story. Stranger Things ultimately feels familiar in a good way while simultaneously being new.
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