Boys on Bikes & Within Walls (Series Review: “Stranger Things”)

stranger things posterA frightening, uber-Americana and darkly comic show pays homage to 80’s SciFi and Horror classics, and ironically becomes one of the most refreshingly original series to mark this new Golden Age of Television.

 

SnapShot Plot

Falling in the category of “What took you so long?,” I have finally entered the world of the critically acclaimed Netflix original series, Stranger Things, a production which wastes no time sending up the horror and sci-fi genre tropes it nonetheless mines for an exhilarating blend of emotion and tenderness. The story opens in instantly familiar territory as a frantic scientist tries to escape something bad in the lab, and quickly cuts to a rousing board game of Dungeons & Dragons played out between four adolescent pals in a small Indiana town, circa 1983, in which young Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) states, “Something’s coming. Something hungry for blood.” And from that point on, hang onto your handlebars; the ride has begun.

In a nutshell, these four best friends are the geeks of their school and the social pariahs among the student body. Their shared interests (Science and the A/V Lab) are topped by their love of Dungeons & Dragons, a game they take very seriously. When one of the boys, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing, his frazzled mother, played by Winona Ryder (in a career resurrecting performance) desperately tries to convince the surly, deadpan police chief, played by David Harbour (in a career making performance) that something terrifying is taking place in her home and that Will is attempting to make contact in bizarre and unsettling ways. Meanwhile, the other three boys are determined to find and rescue their friend, and set off on their own mission through the woods, only to run headlong into a very mysterious and almost mute young girl (played by the luminous Millie Bobby Brown) with strange and powerful abilities that defy logic. Where did she come from and can she be trusted? Is she the missing piece of the puzzle surrounding Will’s disappearance? Will she become a Friend? What’s really going on in that laboratory that it’s strange leader (played by am almost albino looking Matthew Modine) is so willing to kill to contain? And what is that thing in the woods? These are just some of the questions explored in the 8-episode Season 1 of Stranger Things, with Season 2 due out on Halloween Day.

 

“In the four years I’ve been working here, the worst thing that ever happened is when an owl attacked Eleanor Gillespie’s head because it thought her hair was a nest.”

Parting Shot

Created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is that rare occurrence when something totally unique and special emerges from the remix of both classic and hackneyed cinematic conventions from the past 40 years, and so many of them, at that. The most obvious film reference is ET, of course (the mysterious visitor, the bikes, the lisping Drew Barrymore role this time morphed into the character of Dustin wearing THAT HAT) but you can spot tons of other references to movies that include Goonies, Poltergeist, Jumanji, Halloween, and even in the adaptation of Science Fiction author, Ray Bradbury’s novella, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Indeed, in the casting alone of Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, the Duffer Brothers have further fine-tuned the show to that 80’s sensibility in tone which may have been undercut by inserting other actors who aren’t so recognizable from the time period in which the story takes place. Brilliant. Equally brilliant is the old fashioned tempo of both the dialogue and the acting, which struck me as just deliberately earnest enough to make it a conceit of the production, and thus steeped even more in the story’s 80’s milieu.

The original music by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is both sinister and romantic at the same time, perfectly capturing the atmospheric blend of dread mixed with a playful optimism inherent in the series. And the song picks contemporaneous to the time period, especially in the emblematic choice of The Clash as the rebellious soundtrack beating in the hearts of Hawkins’ tame citizenry, are pure genius.

In a series rich in themes and brimming with adventure and danger, it seems one theme resonates above them all: Friendship. As Mike explains to his mysterious visitor, “Friends tell the truth.” In Stranger Things, the life lesson teaches us that friends will also ride headlong into the dark woods, leap into the abyss or climb into the oozing void, whatever it takes.

Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix.

 

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YouTube trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9EkMc79ZSU

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