Stranger Things

I'm not much for horror. I don't like being scared out of my wits. I remember years ago daring myself to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street -- and get this for cowardice, on cable, and during the day -- but I almost couldn't bring myself to do it. Ditto Silence of the Lambs, which by the way, is a much scarier movie than A Nightmare on Elm Street.

This week, I finally got around to Stranger Things, an eight-episode series on Netflix, and I have to say, it's really not horror. It's full to the brim with horror tropes, but it's more like they're there for fun.

Stranger Things is about the disappearance of a boy named Will Byers in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana back in 1983. Or more accurately, it's about Will's mother and brother, the local sheriff, and Will's best friends Mike, Lucas and Dustin, doing anything and everything they can to find Will. While on their mission, the three boys stumble upon a quiet, mysterious girl called Eleven with very short hair and superpowers reminiscent of a character in a Stephen King novel. Eleven has apparently escaped from the local secret government lab, because all small American towns in horror movies feature secret government labs.

Lucas, Dustin, Mike and Eleven
The series -- or probably season, since its success has made it inevitable that there will be more -- constantly reminded me of E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial. (There was even a huge and obvious E.T. homage in the penultimate episode, minus the soaring John Williams score.) The way that the three boys hide Eleven from the adults and champion her cause as they search for Will is the emotional heart of the story. And come on, we adult nerds can all relate to the nerdy AV club kids versus the bullying cool kids.

In fact, I ended up liking all of the young actors: Mike (Finn Wolfhard) the leader, the abrasive but courageous Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) who stole the show -- this kid kept making me laugh out loud. I also liked Mike's teenage sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and her romantic triangle storyline with Will's brother Jonathan and an absurdly coiffed Tom-Cruise-like idiot named Steve. It could have gotten ridiculous, but instead culminated in an almost comic, frantic and exciting scene in the utterly destroyed Byers house.

But the best member of the young cast was by far and away Millie Bobby Brown (great name) as Eleven. She had a ton of story to carry pretty much by herself, and she was consistently endearing as well as terrific at projecting her character's "otherness." She made me want to beat up anyone who had ever used and abused Eleven, which I'm pretty sure was the point.

Not that there weren't adults in the story. I very much liked David Harbour as Sheriff Hopper, whose commitment to finding Will was touching and quite believable, and Winona Ryder as Joyce, Will's mother, who spent most of her screen time melting down while somehow remaining sympathetic. I particularly loved the way she went nuts with the Christmas lights and the alphabet painted on the wall.

I also enjoyed the Dungeons and Dragons, the Star Wars movie references, the eighties hair, the scenes in the murky woods at night, and absolutely everything about the "Upside-Down" (I'm trying not spoil you guys). The "alternative" sets were terrifically creepy. Well done. Just about the only thing I didn't care for was Matthew Modine as Dr. Brenner. Nothing about his character did anything for me. Did I miss something?

Stranger Things was fun to watch, and I recommend it. It wasn't life-changing or anything, and I didn't cry in a specific place where I probably should have, but I got through the series in three days and enjoyed it more with each episode. I hope it's renewed, which it probably will be, because I want more. The creative duo behind this series, the Duffer Brothers, also worked on Wayward Pines. Much better this time, guys.
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.


Billie Doux said...

I tried to keep the review above non-spoilery, but comments are fair game! Spoil away!

Mallena said...

I loved everything about this one. It reminded me what it was like going to the movies when I was younger. Now everything is either an R rated comedy, or an action movie. Horror movies for the most part are now too scary for me, but Stranger Things was just right. Matthew Modine's character might have been better if I understood what he was doing more. Hopefully in season 2 we will get more backstory on how Eleven came to be in that lab. I loved the Upside Down, and poor Barb was so terrified. Winona Ryder was great, too. I loved the way she had the exact same haircut as her older son, though I think that shaggy look was more 70's than 80's. Nancy's boyfriend had 80's hair, though.

Lamounier said...

This review captured my feelings about Stranger Things. It didn’t change my life, but it was really well done and I really enjoyed it. Specially the kids. Oh my gods, the kids. The kids stole the series. I loved them so much. When recommending Stranger Things to a friend, all I talked about were the kids. Then in the end I told her “there are adults too”.

Dustin was amazing. I just adored him. He was the glue that held the group together and he had the best one liners. His call to his teacher during the night was such a comedic highlight. The actor nailed the part. I also liked Mike, who constantly showed heart and courage, and Lucas, even if he got the unfortunate role of devil’s advocate most of the time.

Of course, Eleven was the best. Or maybe a tie with Dustin? Eleven is 11 and Dustin is 10.999…? Anyway, I loved everything about her. Her powers, her backstory, her sensibility and loyalty to her new friends. I expected her to be reunited with her mom, so I was moved and devastated when she sacrificed herself to kill the monster. Or did she? Major kudos to Millie Bobby Brown (agreed, Billie, that’s a great name) for the amazing work she did.

The teenagers weren’t as interesting as the kids, but I was surprised by how well written into the story the love triangle was. I totally thought Steve was going to bite the dust on the fight against the monster, instead the scene ended with no casualties. I can’t believe Nancy would resume her relationship with him, though.

I did have one issue, though: how the writers handled Barb’s disappearance/death. As soon as we saw Barb on the Upside Down, I told my boyfriend “she’s dead. Will’s rescue is the emotional core of the story, so he needs to be alive in the end, and it would be too convenient if both children ended up alive.” But, even though I expected Barb to be dead, I was really annoyed by how her disappearance didn’t shake the town as much as Will’s. In fact, only Nancy seemed to care about her, as we barely saw her family’s reaction. I think Barb was treated more as a plot device than a character, which is unfortunate because she was easily the coolest of the teenagers.

Now that I wrote that paragraph about Barb I just realized that she was trying to get out of the pool on the Upside Down! God, what a well-constructed story. I love when all the little pieces come together.

I assumed this was going to be a one season only series. Thankfully, it’s not supposed to be. As the season finale went by I thought the Upside Down was such a cool concept and we needed more than just one episode exploring it. Now, have it, we will.

Lamounier said...

This review captured my feelings about Stranger Things. It didn’t change my life, but it was really well done and I really enjoyed it.

Now, just so we are clear, the thing that didn't change my life was the series. Dous Reviews' reviews are always life changing. ^^

Billie Doux said...

Mallena and Lamounier, I so agree about Barb. I didn't write about her in my review because anything I said would have been a spoiler, but I hated how her character seemed... I don't know, disposable.

The thing I liked best about the teenage love triangle was Steve's reaction to the bear trap and all the other bizarre stuff in the Byers house near the end.

Mallena said...

Billie, you do an excellent job with your reviews here. When someone is doing a review of a whole season, then it should be reader beware. I don't read reviews of something before I watch it, unless the review is meant for pre-viewing info, and then that is usually specified. Since coming here, I have changed my views on spoilers. I used to think that if a show is years old, then everyone should already know what happens, so it's okay to talk about future events. Now, after watching nearly everything I skipped for years on Netflix, such as TVD and Arrow, I'm glad that the reviews are kept spoiler free. IMO, no one should read a season review of something or the comments without watching the whole thing first, same as with a single episode.

Docnaz said...

Creepy dad had a 442. An Oldsmoblile with a 455 engine. I had one. Mine was a 1970. I think his was a year or two later. It was not really a good choice for a 17 yo who had totaled her dad's car on Father's Day a few months earlier. It was a boy magnet in a very negative way. But I will never forget that car or my wonderful dad who trusted me with it. I love this show for the nostalgia of our 70-80s generation.

Billie Doux said...

Unsurprisingly, Stranger Things is getting a second season of nine episodes. If it runs during the summer, I'll definitely review it. For me, the big question is cast. Will Millie Bobby Brown be in it?

Marianna said...

Along with the rest of you, the kids were my favorite part of the show. Especially the constant Dungeons and Dragons references! =)

Lamounier: If you recall the Dept. of Energy arranged things to make it look like Barb had run away from home and since she's older than Will there's less to be concerned with as she's more capable of taking care of herself. We didn't see what occurred during the month time jump so I was curious how they explained everything that happened to the town, like if they ever found out Barb didn't really run away or how they explained that Will wasn't really dead.

Correction: Will's best friends' names are Mike, Lucas and Dustin. (Caleb is the name of the actor who plays Lucas.)

Billie Doux said...

Thanks for the correction, Marianna -- I fixed it.