Alien has always scared me. I don’t do well with horror films in general, but there was something about the alien monster from Alien that always freaked me out. I never was a space miner or a space marine…God knows I ain’t Sigourney Weaver. But here I am. To this day, I avoid air vents or holes in ceilings because of that damn penis-headed thing.
I bring up my unrealistic yet life long fear because of Netflix’s newest science fiction series Stranger Things. Alien was one of several 70s and 80s science fiction/horror movies the show paid homage to. There were sprinkles of The Thing, Poltergeist, and even a bit of Friday the 13th (Among others).
Stranger Things was a throwback to the dark storytelling of those movies. There was a feeling of creeping terror as the show progressed. The show was about the disappearance of a little boy. But the show also managed to bring a sense of wonder and fun by taking some cues from other 80s movies like E.T. and The Goonies.
Nostalgia only gets you so far, but Stranger Things managed to strike a magnificent balance between seemingly conflicting styles. How did it do this? By looking at it through the eyes of a child.
Stranger Things centered on the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and his young friends’ attempt to find him. The three boys, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) were the heart and soul of the show. Yes, strange things were happening (Pun intended!), but the boys attacked it like the D&D games they played. They were on a quest to save their friend. As the plot grew stranger, the boys were the first to believe the outlandish because of their youth.
Mike was the awkwardly brave geek, Dustin brought the comic relief in a fun way and Lucas was the loyal voice of reason. Will has only a few scenes outside of being in trouble, but he was firmly established as the kind boy that everyone wanted to save. All these actors were amazing in their roles.
But the standout was Eleven (Millie Brown), the young girl with “superpowers” that the boys find in their quest to find Will. She had very few lines, but her expressive face and eyes spoke volumes. I have always loved the “bad-ass of few words,” but she was my favorite character. At the same time, Eleven was still a child and Brown blends the vulnerability of a tortured child into that expressive face.
The adults in the show were strong as well. David Harbour’s Chief Hopper was a throwback to the grizzled, every man heroes that Harrison Ford would play. And Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce did some of her best work. Matthew Modine’s mysterious antagonist Dr. Brenner certainly looked the part, but he was used so sparingly that he barely registered. And a special shout out to Cara Buono as Mike’s mom Karen. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but her earnest mother moments were almost always undercut in funny ways to me. And Buono played them really well.
Sound and vision were used perfectly as well. The directors, which included creators Matt and Ross Duffer, used long lingering wide shots to up the tension. A shot of a door slowly closing would end with a distinctive…well, I’m not exactly sure what to call it other than an “80s screech.” Hopper would jump as a deputy came to see him in a darkened tool shed…that screech returns.
That screech was used to hint at the presence of the monster. And that monster was done in the classic “hide it and let the imagination run wild”manner, though the monster’s effects weren’t always convincing. The soundtrack, especially the theme song, were vintage 80s. When I first heard that theme, I thought I was watching that sequel to Tron Legacy that I’d always hoped for…Shut up, I really liked that movie!
While the writing was tight throughout, not everything worked. The plot around Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) was frustrating. It wasn’t the actors, both Dyer and Heaton were pretty solid. Their story, which also involved the popular jerk Steve (Joe Keery), just took some creepy turns (Not in a good way) and never truly satisfied. And in some cases, it rarely made any sense. The story line provides the “love interest” angle and it never really worked.
Stranger Things was more than a simple nostalgia trip. The well done characters and mysterious but fun sci-fi adventure make for an entertaining ride.
Score: 8.5 out of 10