As someone who never had too much of an interest in science fiction, I approached Netflix’s new series Stranger Things with trepidation. For me, sci-fi has always lacked that human touch, the emotional drive which brings me back episode after episode. But Stranger Things is different. Here genre takes a back seat to story, and shock value plot twists are absent in favour of honest character development.
Early reviews promised a gripping plot, a thomping soundtrack and a brilliant turn from the ever underrated Winona Ryder. Brilliant, I thought. Something to really get my teeth into over summer.
As episode one opens, we find ourselves in Indiana, November 1983. Through the shady corridors of Hawkins National Laboratory, a scientist runs in vain from a mysterious entity. Something evil is lurking in the passageways of Hawkins National Laboratory, evil capable of snatching a human being from an elevator shaft in one merciless swoop.
Meanwhile, schoolboy Will Byers is cycling home from a “Dungeons & Dragons”(TM) game to the sound of euphoric synths. Youthful freedom is in the air; the crisp autumn night is palpable. But as the music stops, our sense of security evaporates. A chilling figure emerges in the road, stopping Will in his tracks and forcing him to run for his life through the woods. You will pray for him to make it home safely, but it will all be in vain.
By the time the opening credits roll, Will is gone.
Once Will vanishes, his best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) rises to the fore as our plucky, unlikely hero who, along with his ragtag bunch of friends, embark upon a quest to bring their lost friend home. Along the way they join forces with a mysterious girl known only as Eleven (a scene stealing Millie Bobby Brown), whose unique circumstances are so crucial to the story that it would be a crime for me to give anything away.
From the outset it’s crystal clear that these young actors are special. There’s no stage school precociousness here – these kids have an enthusiasm and a maturity beyond their years, effortlessly taking on scenes which even the most seasoned of adult actors would struggle with.
Mike and co aren’t the only ones trying to get to the bottom of Will’s disappearance, however. Chief Hopper (David Harbour) is a brilliantly grumpy cop with a tragic back story who leads his own renegade investigation, whilst Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) juggles turbulent teen romance with a determined search for the monster terrorising her town.
Above anything else, choosing nineties icon Winona Ryder to play Will’s frantic mother Joyce was a casting masterstroke. Well known for her kooky roles in several of Tim Burton’s movies, Ryder brings her trademark touch of the ethereal to an often heartbreaking performance. Never before has a return to the public eye been carried out with more style than it is here.
The most striking thing about Stranger Things though is neither the plot nor the (excellent) performances. It’s the thread of warmth which runs throughout every scene, every line of dialogue, and every minute expression. You can tell that these characters all love each other. You don’t need the script to spell out the strength of the bonds between mother and child, between lovers, or between friends. It’s all organic.
One minor, but very sweet, plot point revolves around Will and his older brother Jonathan bonding over a mutual love of The Clash. In the grand scheme of things it’s hardly pivotal, but it’s an invaluable moment in terms of character development. These kids may be taking on gruesome beasts and shady government officials, but at heart they are just that – kids. Stranger Things patronises neither the children on screen nor the adults watching at home. It teaches us that everybody, no matter your age or your background, can make a change.
Don’t ask me how accurate it all is, but when it comes to evoking a sense of time and place Stranger Things doesn’t put a foot wrong. Apart from an obligatory cameo from Toto’s ‘Africa’, the show doesn’t rely on 80s classics to emphasise the period elements. Instead, lesser known songs still with definitively 80s sounds help to transport us back thirty years without detracting from the action at hand. This is a running theme throughout the series – it never has to advertise its period setting, instead letting the drama speak for itself. By the time the final episode rolls around, the cultural gap is barely noticeable. Stranger Things is an entirely human story, and one which transcends its niche setting.
Watching Stranger Things truly makes you feel as though you’re experiencing something special. Yes, the comparisons to ET and Stephen King are well founded, but it’s much more than that. Stranger Things is a story about love, hope, and the unlimited strength within. Never mawkish but always tender, Netflix’s latest hit is equally as moving as it is terrifying. Just beware – you may be sleeping with the lights on for a long time afterwards…
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