It’s been fascinating to watch the progress of Hollywood and the wider mainstream media’s commercialization of pop culture nostalgia over the last ten years. The trend has been broadly chronological, with film studios and TV executives thoroughly plumbing the depths of the 80s before moving onto untapped veins of things that only 90s kids will remember (see the upcoming Power Rangers movie), but there have been a handful of treasured childhood favourites that have been seemingly declared off-limits: we’ve gotten remakes and re-adaptations galore of properties like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that were designed to sell toys in the first place, but no one has directly touched those pre-digital classics deemed to have more artistic merit, chief among them the 80s output of Steven Spielberg.
Instead, we’ve gotten a small share of homages, such as the 2011 movie Super 8. The discourse surrounding that movie was interesting to me, because I’ve never seen most of the films by The Master that the movie was drawing on– I wasn’t even alive for most of them– and have absolutely zero nostalgia or affection for either those movies specifically, or that period of film-making in general. So while critics argued in endless circles over whether Super 8 was too much of a homage or not enough of a homage and to what extent it succeeded at doing what it set out to do, I approached it with no expectations and ended up liking it more than most people did.
Which brings us to Stranger Things, a similar attempt to tap into the atmosphere and trappings of a bygone era of childhood entertainment that I only dimly remember at best. Specifically, in drawing from old Stephen King novels like Firestarter and IT alongside the expected ET and Close Encounters, the series is aiming somewhere between the kind of adults-only horror movie that you watched on TV when your parents weren’t looking and that realm of kids movies that are just edgy and scary enough to bring them right up to the line of being too much for the intended audience to handle– the kinds of films that cranky pre-Millenials insist were once common staples of kid’s programming before the entire media landscape became wussified sometime in the 90s. Whether or not it succeeds as a pastiche of these things, I can’t say (and don’t care to begin with), but how does it hold up on its own merits?
The initially somewhat muddled premise is that it’s the 80s and a young lad by the name of Will Byers goes missing after encountering a spooky entity in the woods while riding his Spielberg-approved Amblin Pictures bicycle home from a D&D session with his friends. Said friends, including our main character Mike Wheeler, go out searching by themselves when the town’s adults don’t seem to be making any headway and encounter a strange girl named Eleven who shows all the hallmarks of having just escaped from a sinister government laboratory.
The two events are obviously linked, but it takes a wide cast of characters– including Will’s distraught mother, the older siblings of both Will and Mike, and a borderline-alcoholic police chief whose idealism for law enforcement is firmly buried under a heavy layer of cynicism due to a tragic event from his past– to pull the different strands of the odd events together, solve the mystery, and ultimately find out what happened to Will.
The fact that the characters do manage to come together in a unified story feels like a significant achievement, given how disparate the plot feels at first. For quite a while it’s not at all clear how Eleven, the monster that snatched Will, the shady government compound Eleven escaped from and the strange mass of organic tissue growing in its basement all fit together, or whether they even do. Likewise, the fate of Will Byers is initially highly confusing– has he become some sort of ghost? Why and how is he communicating with his mother through light sources and phone lines? What’s up with the strange figures she sees in the walls?
But it does all come together in the end, albeit while leaving some of the specific details vague (the thing with the lights is never really explained). More impressively, the story manages to make every character feel important and impactful. I got briefly concerned when the series started to focus heavily on Mike’s teenage sister and her first dabbling with sex and romance, as plotlines like these are routinely used as filler in American TV shows and usually end up having absolutely no impact on the plot, but in this case the character in question ends up being drawn into the mystery from a different angle, and becomes as active a participant as Eleven and the rest of the younger cast.
(Although now that I think about it, the specific circumstances behind her involvement could be read as punishing the character for having sex with the “wrong” guy in a really creepy nice-guy way…)
See, despite all the Spielberg trappings, in terms of its structure Stranger Things most closely resembles the vintage Stephen King yarns that it shares a title font with: books like IT and Salem’s Lot where King populates a folksy down-home American setting with a range of characters who all suffer from various issues and internal struggles before unleashing some sort of supernatural something on them and watching how they all react. Except Stranger Things doesn’t waste the viewer’s god damn time by spending page after page fleshing out some inconsequential side character only to immediately kill them off, and the story doesn’t end with the pre-adolescent characters having an orgy in a sewer, so clearly the show’s creator’s knew what King elements to borrow and which ones to stay well away from.
And then there’s Eleven, who in King’s hands would probably have been a total trainwreck (for example). On paper, the character seems like a daunting proposition even for an experienced adult actress: nearly mute, fearful but also terrifyingly powerful, and forced to communicate mostly through facial expressions. What’s even more surprising than the fact that 12 year old Millie Bobbie Brown knocks it out of the park is how the writing works to diffuse some of the narrative issues that could have made her character frustrating or even unsympathetic. At the beginning of the first episode she basically knows exactly what happened to Will and what the other characters need to do to get him back, but the after-effects of what she went through prior to the beginning of the story have robbed her of most of her powers of communication, and thus she doesn’t know how to convey this information in a way that anyone will understand. It could have felt extremely contrived, but Brown does such a good job of conveying the character’s withdrawn disconnection from the world that her actions make perfect sense.
If there’s a weak link in the cast, it’s actually Mike and his two friends. Now don’t get me wrong, all of the young actors do a commendable job and their dialogue is believably child-like (in that they’re both more capable than the adults in their life give them credit for and really stupid in equal measure), but it’s telling that as the story goes on they increasingly start to seem more like comic relief than anything else. If you’re trying to tell a relatively grounded story there’s a limit to what you can have your child characters realistically accomplish, and Stranger Things is just far enough on the “grounded” side to limit how active they can really be in the story.
I guess we’ll find out as the series enters multiple seasons and tries to keep its story going for longer than a few hours. I was initially surprised and a little taken aback at the idea that a second season was even under consideration, as the story seemed to be an obvious case of a one-and-done tale rather than something meant for long-term serialization. Which makes me wonder if there’s a reason none of its inspirations ever got sequels, beyond a sense of childhood reverence.
Either way, for the moment the first season of Stranger Things is all we’ve got, and I encourage people to give it a go even if (or maybe especially if) it doesn’t at first glance seem like something that’s going to connect with them. Its creators may have unintentionally cast a wider net with this than they were intending.