Stranger Things is a pitch perfect homage to eighties horror filmmaking: take The Goonies, drop them into the Twilight Zone, and let Stephen King terrify them for eight episodes, all in the retro style of Reagan-era cinema. You get the idea, and it makes you wonder why nobody did it sooner. But, as well executed as it is, I knew right away I was going to have problems with it, and not just because it fervently embraces nostalgia for an era I was desperate, at the time, to escape. Nonetheless, I watched open-mindedly while hoping for it develop into something more than its slick surface, and perhaps to subvert its admittedly nifty premise. In the end, I was disappointed.
In small-town Indiana in 1983, a young boy named Will (Noah Schnapp) mysteriously goes missing after a D&D session with his buddies Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Their efforts to locate Will introduce them to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a strange young girl who seems to have super powers. As the town, led by Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and a run-down sherriff named Hopper (David Harbour), investigates the disappearance, it quickly becomes apparent that something bizarre is going on, and that it has something to do with a nearby Department of Energy facility run by the sinister Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). As everyone, including Will’s outcast brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s teen rebel sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Nancy’s skeezy boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), gets sucked into the mystery, the suspense and danger builds toward an explosive confrontation between mundane and supernatural forces.
Stranger Things achieves precisely what it was aiming for: it’s an authentic love letter to eighties horror films that have kid protagonists. And yes, there’s a certain kitschy fun to its retro stylings, its deliberately dated credit sequence, its calculated mimicry of Spielberg and King, and its cagey update of kid-centered adventure in the style of The Goonies and Stand By Me. All in all, it pushes nostalgia buttons brilliantly, and makes for a tight and entertaining ride. Viewers who grew up with a love for that era are likely going to adore much of what makes Stranger Things successful.
Unfortunately, I’m at a disadvantage in that regard: despite its formative influence, the eighties leave me cold, particularly as a decade of film. So on some level, the hackle-raising magic some folks might feel from its well realized production, engaging story, nostalgic detail, and fine performances…that’s all lost on me. More detrimentally, I found it a shallow examination of its concept. Stranger Things conjures the eighties, without even remotely interrogating the eighties. Its characters are right out of a popular 1985ish chiller — right down to its conventional gender roles and ugly social status quo. Men are active and heroic, women are protectors, girlfriends, or mysterious catalysts. Sleazy jocks like Steve get to redeem themselves with side-plot character arcs, while the much more crucial Eleven is a chess piece, for some reason selectively communicative, even as her friends argue about her while she’s right in the room. There’s bullying, there’s date-rapey partying, there are friends mean-spiritedly making fun of each other, and other ickyisms, none of them sociologically examined. Is this what made the eighties great? Stranger Things has an opportunity to comment on these familiar dynamics and tropes, turn them on their head, subvert them, perhaps even in the manner of period pieces like The Americans or Mad Men — two shows that recognize that the “good old days” were actually bad old days. Not only doesn’t Stranger Things take up that challenge, it seems oblivious that the challenge even exists. It’s all surface.
Even so, it’s an attractive surface, and the show, while highly derivative, is perfectly entertaining. Viewers more invested in the horror genre will most likely really love it. But ultimately it struck me as a formal exercise: skillfully rendered, but lacking depth, and the extra level of critique that might have made it truly great.