A Look at Stranger Things (Season One)

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Nostalgia. There are some things in life that make most of us smile, and nostalgia is one of them. We all have an era or time in our lives that we feel warm and excited to think about from time to time. It is nice to look back and recall things that we enjoyed and experienced in the past, and sometimes those things that we look back on are movies and television. Stranger Things takes ahold of that idea, a nostalgia for 1980’s film and television, of pop culture from a lost era of playing outside with friends on bicycles, of grabbing a popsicle and playing board games until way too late at night, of watching VHS tapes that you shouldn’t really be watching, and of music. Ah, music. Is there anything more nostalgic than a song? Stranger Things is a loyal nod to the days gone by, and while it might be harder for younger viewers to truly relate to, there is something here for anyone who has been through childhood adventure and enjoyed the wonderful moments that are unrepeatable once being a kid is behind us.

Netflix has been a freaking beacon of excellence lately. The shows that are being exclusively released through the streaming service have, in many instances, been fantastic. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Better Call Saul, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to name a few, have been showing Netflix as more than just a place to revisit old favourites. Stranger Things joins this top notch list and has become something of a smash in the process. People love it. It goes back to nostalgia, and while many might sit on the side of the fence that says that nostalgia is over-used and new ideas should be being implemented, not old ones, there are many more people who sit on the side of the fence with their arms in the air screaming for more. I have to admit to being one of the arm-flailers. I know that writers and directors are using the idea of “looking back” as a selling-point lately, but so what? I don’t mind, it’s a trend I enjoy and one I don’t think is actually being overused. It depends on how you look at things. Are movies about war overdone? There’s been thousands over the years, and I feel a war film can be just as fresh today as it was in 1930. Nostalgic television, film and books can be fantastic, and Stranger Things, my friends, is fan-tas-TIC!

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I was considering doing an episode-by-episode review of Stranger Things here, but decided that I would instead do an article/review instead. If you are yet to watch the series then find a way to do-so. I won’t spoil things here, and I won’t go into crazy amounts of details about the plot and where it takes us in the eight episodes we were given for season one. I will, however, talk about the cast, the story (in a nutshell) and my opinions on the show.

Stranger Things is set in 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana and begins with a scientist running away from someone or something we don’t see on camera. He makes it to an elevator only to find himself torn out of it as we hear him screaming. We then head into the home of the Wheeler family where Mike Wheeler and his three buddies are sitting in the basement playing Dungeons & Dragons. Mike, along with Dustin Henderson , Lucas Sinclair and Will Byers, are obviously great friends. We follow Will as he heads home. He see’s something strange in the woods as he is riding home, so he ditches his bike and runs but when he arrives back, the house is empty. His mother and older brother aren’t there, and Will begins to hear strange noises and something seems to be trying to get through the front door. These moments are the last we see of Will and his disappearance turns the local town upside down. His mother, Joyce Byers, and older brother Jonathan Byers, try their hardest to find clues as to what happened to Will, and seek help from local law enforcement, primarily Chief Jim Hopper. Meanwhile Mike, Dustin and Lucas make their own attempts to locate their lost friend.

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We meet a young girl with a shaved head who looks like she’s suffered through some kind of ordeal. She wanders into a diner and steals some food from the kitchen, only to find that the diner owner isn’t a bad guy. He gives her some food and drink and asks her questions about what happened to her, but the girl is silent and seems afraid. The diner owner calls for help and things take a strange turn as a woman arrives and shoots the owner and attempts to capture the girl. In the time between her arrival at the diner and the woman who killed the owner arriving, we see that the girl has abilities, as she focused her mind on a nearby fan to switch it off. We get the impression that the girl has capabilities that people want to control, and she is on the run. Mike, Dustin and Lucas find themselves running into the girl and helping her hideout in Mike’s basement. She begins to open up a little to them, especially Mike, and after seeing a branding-like tattoo on her arm she tells him that her name is Eleven. Mike decides it is a better idea to call her Elle.

Within the first episode or two of Stranger Things we have so many questions flying around. Where is Will? To what lengths will Joyce go to find her son? Who is Eleven, the quiet girl with the shaved head? What is she really capable of? Who are the people trying to capture her, and why is she running from them? What happened to the scientist at the beginning? The main question we ask ourselves, though… Are all of these things linked in one weird way?

I won’t say much more about the “synopsis” of the show. There are so many revelations, twists and turns along the way that it would be a shame to spoil anything. It’s a mystery story with elements of sci-fi and horror, with conspiracies and monsters, of friendship, love and family. It has the feel of Spielberg classics like E.T and Close Encounters as well as Poltergeist, Stand By Me and The Goonies. I got a real kick out of that nostalgia. I grew up in the eighties and was a child of the eighties and early-nineties, so I connected with the things that were going on. It made me wanna grab a Tab Coke.

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The cast of Stranger Things really are a brilliant lot. The show is taken to a higher quality because of them. It says a lot when it’s pretty impossible to pick a standout. There are lots of stand out performances here, from both the kids and the adults. It makes that fact even more impressive when you realise that many of the young actors have done very little else on screen. Personally, if I had to narrow things down, I’d have to place my favourite performances in the show at the feet of Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven and Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers. Brown is really exceptional, and considering she is silent a lot of the time, it makes it even more incredible. Her facial expressions and body language show an adept knowledge of the character she is playing, and especially given her age, she is fantastic. Ryder, who I haven’t seen in much in the last few years, is a joy here too. Her frantic and agonised performance as a mother trying desperately to find her missing child is brilliant. She brings a real edge of madness and longing to the role and it is very cool to see her back in a big way.

Make no mistake about it though, I enjoyed pretty much every main performance on offer here. Finn Wolfhard as Mike was great as a loyal and brave best friend to Will who helps Eleven when she is on the run. Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin and Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas were strong in their roles, and didn’t just fade into the background, they became individual characters who offered more than just a smile and a nudge to the goings on. Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers, Will’s older brother, was also a character I enjoyed a lot, especially as the episodes went on. He had many layers and a reliability to him. It was great to see the cast come together and jump deeply into their roles. There was a real buzz about things, for me, that made each performance seem like it was played with love and passion, and not just phoned in by actors merely reciting a script.

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If you’re looking for critical analysis here and for me to point on negative elements of the show, then I’m not sure this is the article for that. I will say though that there are reveals in the story that I felt were offered to us a bit too soon, and could have been drawn out further to increase the tension to a boiling point. This, though, is a small negative in what truly was one of the most fun television experiences of the year and a real kick-ass throwback to boot.

With Season One, we got eight episodes that all embraced the 80’s, with music and tone and props and everything else. I loved going into scenes and seeing posters or toys or household items that were commonplace back in the 80’s.

The soundtrack was a big part of the experience of Stranger Things, and gave a real glaze to that nostalgia (yeah, I said it again). There are a couple of actual songs here, such as “Should I Stay or Should I Go” but The Clash, but mostly we get the original score. The music was created by Austin synth band S U R V I V E. A modern soundtrack that does a damn fine job of sounding authentic, and fits wonderfully with the cinematography, the writing and the acting. It’s a plump and precious eighties package full of boom boxes, Evil Dead posters, fairy lights, D&D and walkie-talkies. Oh man, remember walkie-talkies?

It’s no surprise to see Stranger Things become an instant classic show with a gigantic fanbase and tons of merchandise. It’s a great story, it’s stylish in its presentation, and, at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, it is just a load of FUN! If you haven’t yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

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Stranger Things: Season One is available to watch in full on Netflix, now.

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