Tania Darlington Reviews: Stranger Things

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Stranger Things is a classic science fiction/horror tale of a missing boy and his family’s and friend’s attempts to reconcile the oddities of his disappearance with the eerie activities of a top secret government lab on the outskirts of town. This latest original offering from Netflix is finely crafted to appeal to an audience hungry for 1980s nostalgia, particularly for the classic Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter films of that decade. From its cast to its opening credits, its cinematography, its tone and performance style, and its score, it near-perfectly replicates the movies popular during its 1983 setting. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of and homage to1980s cinema has made Stranger Things an instant hit with both viewers who grew up in the 1980s and fans of ‘80s media generally. This praise for Stranger Things is certainly deserved. It is a fun and intriguing summer watch. However, the ‘80s homage that is its greatest strength is also occasionally a point of weakness, as Stranger Things sometimes uses nostalgia to mask poor character building and lack of emotional depth.

Stranger Things opens in 1983 in a small town in Indiana. Its opening sequences foreshadow the series quite effectively, introducing expectations for setting, tone, theme, and plot that pay off amply over the show’s brief eight-episode run. The cold open takes viewers to a government lab where, in a scene reminiscent of both The X-Files and John Carpenter’s The Thing, an off-screen, apparently alien creature chases and attacks a scientist. The scene cuts to a quiet suburban basement where four awkward boys in their early teens are engaged in an hours-long Dungeons and Dragons campaign preparing to defeat an unseen monster. The visual and character callbacks to Steven Spielberg’s 1980s oeuvre, particularly E.T. and The Goonies, in this scene set up viewer expectations for the inevitable bildungsroman that begins as one of the boys, Will, vanishes while riding his bike home. What follows is a stunning if predictable celebration of the works of Carpenter, Spielberg, and Stephen King, and Stranger Things’ facile incorporation of tropes from their works as well as several other films from the 1980s makes for an interesting study in contemporary remix culture along with an enjoyable watch.

The risk of remixing such well-known works, though, is relying on viewers’ knowledge of earlier genre pieces as visual and storytelling shorthand, making the characters and story feel hollow. This is often the case with Stranger Things. One of the biggest draws of the series is Winona Ryder’s starring role as Will’s mother, yet Ryder has to work too hard to achieve emotional resonance, as her crusading parent character is both trite and underdeveloped. Furthermore, several critical emotional moments fail to land, relying on well-known extradiegetic songs to lend them weight, a technique which causes tonal dissonance that undermines the power of the show’s storytelling. While the charm of Stranger Times’ nostalgic bent masks these weaknesses initially, in retrospect, they are likely to undermine viewers’ long-term appreciation of the show.