back to the unfashionable future in Stranger Things
* minor spoilers ahead
I don’t remember the 80’s, for which I am glad. The Duffer brothers’ new Netflix show Stranger Things clearly owes a debt to Spielberg, Lucas, and King in the world’s most terrifying version of E.T. It’s a testament to the Duffers that they successfully create a show that so firmly inhabits a time and an idea. I might not recognize all the references, but it at once feels intensely familiar and intensely different. Even though it’s my firm belief that the 80’s were a cultural nadir in terms of art, fashion, and self-awareness, I enjoyed that 8-episode nadir.
It’s beautifully shot to capture the ravages of a small Indian town that has clearly seen better times, yet there’s a sense of childlike wonderment to the woods and the lake and a clear geometry to the neighborhood. You’ve ridden your bicycles down those dirt paths or wasted time at that listing, grungy theater. The atmosphere is appropriately dark and heady thanks to the score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and the Duffers manage to convey the creeping dread with only a few cheap light bulb tricks.
In particular, Stranger Things impressively avoids a few common pitfalls. The show relies big time on the chops of its child actors, and they don’t disappoint. The main trio of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have a boyish, lived-in quality to them. You can imagine them arguing over games of Dungeons and Dragons and swearing blood pacts. They struggle occasionally when they need to turn it up to a dramatic 11, but they’re shockingly above average. Usually the screen just takes a hit with child actors. Millie Bobby Brown plays government lab escapee Eleven, and despite the deserved praise she’s received, her part is a little easier. Stoic underplaying should be the default setting for most children, though Brown keeps it from lapsing into wooden Keanu Reeves territory. She’s a younger, trembling, blood-free Carrie.
Similarly, a subplot with a group of teens centering around their romantic dramas and clique jockeying doesn’t make me want to fast forward. It’s an impressive ensemble, and it would be remiss to not mention David Harbour’s Indiana Jones-esque Sheriff Hopper, a hulking mustache of a man who carries himself with a gravelly, scary-compassionate charisma. He and the kids get all the interesting things to do and that’s where the show does wander its bike into a pothole. 80’s icon Winona Ryder’s ethereal creepiness is wasted in a frazzled mom role. Reduced to wandering around the town screaming her missing child’s name hoarsely, the role is a meatless one and Ryder thinks dialing up her performance will fix it. She’s overplayed her hand, but it’s hard when you’re given nothing but deuces.
The plot itself is a scattered mishmash of homages. Monsters, telekinesis, government conspiracies, these are all incredibly familiar toys, and Stranger Things doesn’t do anything particularly new with them. It withholds the information in all the familiar ways and parses out the creepy flashbacks on an Amtrak schedule. When it all boils down to the last few episodes and the veils are shucked away and the secrets are revealed, you realize how thin the plot is.
But Stranger Things doesn’t wear out its welcome like Lost. J.J. Abrams, who did the similar Super 8 and produced Cloverfield often spoke of the Mystery Box, and how the anticipation is even more important than the reveal. But the problem with stories (in any medium) that rely on the Mystery Box is that the reveal is often piddling garbage, reused and recycled ideas, nothing but smoke and mirrors to string us along. The beauty of Stranger Things is that it doesn’t rely on its secrets and the cheap withholding of information. It’s all about the ensemble, the smartly paced writing, and the evocation of an era. They may have terrible hair, but it’s in the service of something greater.