It’s no secret that Netflix-produced content is a bit of a hit or miss deal: for every Daredevil or House Of Cards, there’s a bad Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel or a rushed Adam Sandler movie no-one likes. That said, for the most part, it’s been good stuff and brand new show Stranger Things is most definitely that.
Set in the 1980’s and taking a page, several pages in fact, out of Steven Spielberg’s book by focusing on a group of clever kids and troubled parents as they investigate the disappearance of a young boy as a supernatural element threatens to ruin more lives. Think The Goonies meets Poltergeist with a shiny new Super 8 polish. The 8-part miniseries stars the likes of David Harbour, Matthew Modine and Winona Ryder, the latter being tasked with the toughest role portraying Joyce, the missing kid’s mother, who is ready to do anything to find him.
Early on in the show, you’re not quite sure where the story is going so, like most of the people around Joyce you suspect that maybe grief is causing her to hallucinate as she starts to believe she can communicate with her son using light bulbs of all things and even sees him trying to push through some kind of cocoon hidden inside the walls of her house. Winona Ryder gives one heck of a performance in Stranger Things, possibly one of her all-time best, as she manages to be both very manic and genuinely emotional: you really feel for Joyce and want to believe that she’s, indeed, not losing her mind.
The good thing about this series being so short is the drama is condensed so you never wait too long for a cool reveal or a big payoff but the pacing is so well timed that it doesn’t feel rushed at all. Joyce’s journey therefore never slugs around and since we’re following an ensemble of characters all working towards the same goal, it skillfully avoids straying from the plot and resorting to filler. As good as the male cast is here, it’s the girls who really make Stranger Things as captivating as it is. Winona Ryder’s frankly award-worthy performance is one but Natalia Dyer is also perfect as the innocent teenager who does a lot of growing up during the course of the story.
It’s 12-year-old newcomer Millie Bobby Brown who steals the show, however, as the little tomboy with a buzz cut who is running away from a shady laboratory where she was used as an experiment due to her basically having super-powers. Although she doesn’t get many lines, she is quietly very expressive and handles the more emotional moments brilliantly. Talk about a three-dimensional character, she’s a dangerous weapon but also a tragic victim, an innocent child and a courageous hero plus she has a romantic connection with one of the kids who look after her. Whenever you see her go through something affecting and that sweet retro score kicks in you know you’ve stumbled onto one surprisingly rewarding show.
Spoiling the story would be cruel so, in a nutshell, you can expect a nifty mix of Spielberg, Altered States, Starman and The Frighteners. Yes, it’s very derivative throughout but Stranger Things really works as a loving homage of all things weird and 80’s, from David Cronenberg horror movies to John Hughes teen comedies, while still feeling fresh and original. As decent as Super 8 was, this is what that movie should have been with the main baddie being a genuine threat and the big supernatural concept being both fascinating and frightening. If I had to nitpick, I’d say it would have been cool to have a monster that’s not CGI and mention that the ending could have probably packed more of an unpredictable punch but, as it stands, it’s still pretty darn great and promises a lot for Season 2.
Stranger Things is one of the best original Netflix shows out there and anyone who is at all nostalgic for the 80’s should fall in love with it from the very first episode. Highly recommended.