Stranger Things takes up back to a simpler, more innocent, time
Nostalgia is all the rage right now, for better or for worse. It makes a certain amount of sense. We are in a time of unprecedented connection. Social media brings us together through shared digital spaces, giving us a chance to remember and experience the world together, reminding us over and over again to not forget anything, from lunchboxes to junk food to toys.
The trivial is a distraction from the real, and at a time when an ignorant blowhard with too much money and ego threatens to rule over the free world with tiny, tiny hands, nostalgic distraction can be a necessary vice, so long as it’s balanced out with a genuine effort to stay informed.
Anyone looking for this type of distraction would be well served by the new science fiction/horror series Stranger Things on Netflix. It is a perfect balance of nostalgia and craft, a fun, entertaining show about things that go bump in a small, Indiana town.
The show features shades of Spielberg and Carpenter, along with a smattering of King, wrapped in a coating of everything familiar about the 1980s, even to those that might have grown up straddling two decades of pop culture. At eight episodes, it’s the perfect length for a final summer binge before grudgingly heading back to school.
Hawkins, Indiana isn’t a haven for Twilight Zone strangeness. On its face, it is every town in American during the Reagan years. Children are free to ride their bikes anywhere they like, schools don’t do much to enforce truancy laws, and Dungeons and Dragons is a new pastime for middle school nerds. The series opens much like E.T., with a game between friends that appear typical of the genre. There’s a leader, a cynic, a goofball, and an innocent moral center.
As with most horror stories, it is the innocent that is at risk. Within the first few minutes, a child disappears in a staccato flashing of incandescent bulbs, opening a mystery that span dimensions. Like all good ‘80s stories, Stranger Things has plucky children, lovesick teens, single mothers, clueless parents, sociopathic bullies, and the Millennium Falcon.
But the Spielberg qualities of the film don’t outshine the horror in the dark—there is more than enough genuine creepiness reminiscent of Stephen King’s It and John Carpenter’s The Thing. The Duffer Brothers, the creators of the show, even throw in what might be the scariest effect of the decade—the creature in the wall. From A Nightmare on Elm Street to Ghostbusters, indistinct shapes pushing through a solid surfaces like bulging latex kept me awake many a night and it’s nice to see such a specific practical effect throughout the series.
Of course, times have changed and digital effects are hard to avoid. As such, the creature in the show is somewhat disappointing CGI, but given how strong the rest of the show is (and the deliberate attempt to reveal it as little as possible) there’s very little to complain about beyond the length of the season. Eight episodes are enough to tell the story fully, but like any good show, it leaves the audience wanting more.
Cast performances are excellent all around, with Wynonna Rider treading familiar territory with ease. It’s the child actors, however, that truly stand out, especially 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown. Brown’s character, a mysterious girl with a terrifying background and limited speech, emotes with an ability far beyond her age. She expertly moves between serving as the show’s E.T. to its Carrie, without missing a beat or a knowing glance.
Stranger Things uses nostalgia as more than a device for stroking the memory of its audience. It creates a familiar world, one that at on the surface appears more safe and comfortable than our own, before upending it in very real, very tense ways. There is more than just a longing for a bygone era, more than a genuine love and affection for the creature comforts of a 1980s childhood. There is an engaging, exciting story to behold, a sense of wonder and dread to experience, and a hero’s journey to follow.
Stranger Things is like re-reading a novel you once loved and discovering an entirely new story in the pages.