Stranger Things (2016)


(Make yourself one here).

I talk about the ’90s a lot because it was my pre-pubescent/pubescent watershed paradise, ten glorious years of innocence and 16-bit wonder before I was more or less forced to find adulthood. I am also anxiously awaiting a ’90s homage that isn’t Buzzfeed: The Screenplay. As of now the only ’90s period pieces, with the hair and the clothes and technology used appropriately, are shows and movies that literally came out in the ’90s.

This seems to be an outcry that emerges with every generation. The Boomers went on about the ’60s for a while. Now I’m seeing example after example of 40-something Generation X’rs on ’80s nostalgia trips. When will it be our turn?

A few weeks ago I came up with a story I called Lander. It involves a Martian child nicknamed Lander who is accidentally left home alone after his family hurries to catch a commercial starship. He crash lands on Earth, where he is taught kung fu by a redheaded former prostitute turned kung fu master. Just as Lander’s training ends, the main villain appears: a brilliant Martian psychologist turned heinous cannibal whom Lander accidentally freed from an underground ice prison with his rocket boosters. The cannibal villain, Mealtime, is starved for Martian flesh, and although young Lander is skilled in martial arts, Mealtime is smart, witty and clever to match. To defeat Mealtime, Lander must join forces with a divorced cable repairman computer hacker and a former special agent turned soul singing nun.

It could work. The problem is my writing lacks subtlety. The not-Julia Roberts training montages would have Britney Spears, Mr. Big and Nirvana vomited all over the background music like they were a supergroup in the same year. During Lander’s downtime he’s watching TV when the recurring funny grandpa walks in and says “What is it with you kids and these damned Ninjaed Teenage Whatevers ?” Then grandpa almost stumbles over a Gameboy and a Don’t Wake Daddy box before he tries making toast with a CD-ROM drive.

Stranger Things isn’t like that. Its creators are more interested in presenting 1983 in the sense of time and place rather than the toysresulting in a period piece instead of an antique show. On the other hand, the series is constructed from every famous ’80s movie crammed into a mutant robot, kind of like Lander but with a healthy balance of actually doing things right to grease the wheels.

The story begins by introducing us to the most likable and believable preteen nerds since Freaks and Geeks. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the main protagonist among the kids, and the most normal, open-minded and level-headed one. He is joined by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) whose mannerisms remind me of Chunk from The Goonies; he also has missing front teeth, giving him that extra geek touch. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) serves as the outspoken voice of reason. Finally there’s Will (Noah Schnapp) who sets the story in motion.

Enroute to his home after a Dungeons & Dragons game, Will is captured by an escaped horror from the local shady research lab and dragged off God-knows-where. His hysterical mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) calls on the local Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) to help.

Hopper has been fortunate to live in a town where literally nothing bad ever happens, not even noise complaints. He can pretty much throw on whatever off the floor before coming to work, with nights open for drinking and banging the local librarian. Once he discovers Will’s disappearance isn’t a kid’s obnoxious shenanigans, Hopper pulls a Marge Gunderson on us, tearing through the case with brilliant detective work. He also punches a lot of people in the face.

Amidst the escalating mystery are intertwining character subplots. Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is riding the high school pretty boy, Steve (Joe Keery) from whom we have been conditioned to expect a face-heel turn. The twist is he only sorta does, if you don’t count his hair. Nancy’s friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) is the second to fall victim to the monster, and despite having little screentime has sprung up a huge, strange Internet fanbase. Barb’s vanishing act gets Nancy involved in the monster hunt.

Will communicates to Joyce through electrical currents, disheartening Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Will’s harried older brother. Poor Jonathan lives contrasting personal and social lives. At school he’s labeled a silent, creepy outcast, while at home he plays man of the house in lieu of his absent douchebag dad (Ross Partridge). He soon realizes Joyce isn’t talking to Christmas lights out of grief.

Then little Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) enters Mike’s life/ Named after the numbered tattoo on her arm and called ‘El’ by the kids for short, she shows up with a limited vocabulary, a hospital gown, and an androgynous crewcut. El can communicate long distances, and if fight or flight calls for it, snap limbs and necks with her mind like burnt twigs.

With all the disorder surrounding Will’s disappearance, Mike is able to keep El hidden in the basement without his out-of-touch parents raising any eyebrows. He brings her food from the dinner table, shows her his room and explains how friendships work. Then he goes to school and leaves her to discover the wonders of television and ’80s culture. Mike’s relationship with his pet girl draws parallels with a certain movie about a little boy who befriends and hides a certain Extra Terrestrial.

There’s a brilliant scene where the boys hand El fresh clothes, and lacking social graces, she starts changing in front of the them. The boys shy away in disgust and embarrassment; Mike politely guides El to a private bathroom. Here’s the brilliant part: the boys are ready to move on with a contingency plan, but Dustin is stuck in a thought loop about El’s near-nudity and keeps bringing it back up. They are at an age where they’re just getting interested in girls but still find them weird and repulsive. They’re less interested in El’s gender than the fact that an awesome superhero has got their backs.

Of course, El’s deadly ESP powers are no coincidence. Her connection to the monster’s origins is delivered piecemeal over eight hour-long episodes. Audiences these days are impatient, expecting everything to be dumped on them at once. I guess an amenity of being Netflix exclusive is not conforming to demanding studio moguls. The pacing is appreciated.

I also like how the nerds aren’t the singular force key to stopping the monster and big bad government lab. I’ve noticed a growing trend of late, where nerds save the world with their all-important geekery and prove to the grownups that their video game binges were not time wasted. Instead of the outcome solely hinging on them, the nerds find a similarity between the monster and pages in their dork book but still need everyone else’s help. This is where the subplots with El, the preteens, the teenagers and the adults intertwine in a collaborative effort. The result is a smooth and cohesive conclusion that takes all the character’s strengths and weaknesses into account. In the end they all have an important role to play; moreover, they are humanized to a praiseworthy degree.

The exception is with the evil government scientist people, who never evolve past their villainous roles. Typical of the ’80s Reagan Era mindset, it comes down to the downtrodden little guys vs. the soulless, fascist suits with money and authority, something you saw a lot during Dutch and his Moral Majority. I could complain about this imbalance between the protagonists and antagonists, but I could also write it off as a homage.

Other than that, I wish the monster had been a puppet or guy in a bodysuit instead of just bad CGI. It would go a long way toward not only taking the ’80s vibe further but appeasing my appetite for practical effects. A physical entity, able to be reached out and touched, has always been a hell of a lot scarier than a digital afterthought. It looks better, too.

If I have any other nitpicks, they dwarf in comparison to the show’s good qualities. This is the first Netflix Original Series I’ve watched, and if Stranger Things is an indicator then I am impressed. I see a Season Two has been confirmed, which I’m apprehensive about. Stranger Things is one of those shows that ends right where it needs to, so hopefully the followup maintains the momentum.

And with any luck, look for Lander sometime around 2032, assuming I’m not dead from all the Squeeze-Its I used to drink. Just don’t expect it to be nearly as good as Stranger Things.

FINAL GRADE: A-