Review: Netflix's 'Stranger Things' Takes Us "Upside Down" With Spielbergian Nostalgia

It seems that many things that come out nowadays are done for the effect of nostalgia.  After all, the most popular films last year were Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Both films were sequels to popular franchises from decades ago.  Star Wars, the 70s, Jurassic World, from the 90s.  But what about the 80s?  Well, Netflix not only has your answer, but they probably have one of their best original programming series they have made so far in the show Stranger Things.  Sure they get all the media hype for House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, but this show is the perfect storm of mystery, horror, action, comedy, and even romance.  Created, written and mostly directed by The Duffer Brothers.  Don’t know who they are you say?  They previously directed the better episodes of season one of Fox’s Wayward Pines, but after this show, they are sure to be household names.

From the first opening minutes of the show, it sets up the stakes.  There’s a monster in town, a disappeared child, a super-powered child, and a shadowy government group within the Department of Energy.  The show is set in the 1980s in the town of Hawkins, Indiana surrounding the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a local child named Will, who vanished into thin air while the unseen monster is chasing after him.  The show mainly focuses on the boy’s friends played by Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin.  Let’s talk about them first.

The boys are pretty much the glue of the show.  If they are not believable, then the show fails.  In an age where many films/shows that are centered on teens and their adventures, it often feels inauthentic (especially in films based on YA novels starring grown adults).  Because the decision to cast actual children was made, they got to actually play themselves and not a caricature of themselves.  Like many 80’s Amblin films, they are the outcasts.  They are in the AV club.  Girls don’t talk to them.  They love Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings.  They were geeks before being a geek was cool.  It today’s age, they are the successful person everyone picked on at the high school reunion who’s handsome, and a good, and everyone wants to be like.  With their friend Will missing, they cannot simply sit on their hands.  This becomes a quest for them to accomplish.  They get on their bikes (E.T. style), and go off on an adventure to find and save their missing friend.  The kids are almost too smart for their own good, as they solve problems the police are oblivious to.  Because they are also the geeks of the town, they apply not only science but apply everything they know from fantasy to help figure out their next steps throughout the eight episodes we have with the.  During their journey, they meet and add a new member to their group.  

While searching for the missing Will last seen in the “Mirkwood” forest (named after the famous forest from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), they stumble across a mute girl with a shaved head.  The boys take her in (some reluctantly), but at she joins them on her quest.  Although she doesn’t speak much to them at first, she forms a special bond with Mike and she ends up living in his basement.  She has a mystery to herself as well.  Did I mention that she has the powers of telekinesis, telepathy, and a few others?  The nameless girl assumes the name of Eleven or “El” as they call her later, based off of a tattoo on her arm.  The tattoo seems to implicate that she is the eleventh child under the care of the Department of Energy for their experiments.  The boys even dress her up like was done in E.T.  Eleven is played by actress Millie Bobby Brow and throughout the film looks like a young Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.  As we unravel the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Will, we are drawn into Eleven’s world as well and we learn about how she gained her abilities from the Department of Energy.

I won’t spoil the total plot surrounding the DOE, but rest assured Matthew Modine is the head bad guy, so they can’t be good.  He all but twirls his fictitious mustache during his many scenes.  The first scene where they flex their muscle shows just how much they are in control of everything.  Because the show is set during the 1980s, they operate with Cold War rules. The DOE is ruthless in their attempts to regain Eleven back as well as cover up the true mystery surrounding Will’s disappearance.  Towards the later episodes of the show, we get to see exactly what they were doing and why they would even kill to protect it.  They operate very much like The Syndicate from X-Files did during that show’s run.

Will’s mother is played by actress Winona Ryder, who gives a spectacular performance of a mother broken by the anxiety of her missing son.  She toes a fine line between depressed, hopeful, and flat out crazy.  While we haven’t seen much of her in recent years, her performance during this show is guaranteed to spark everyone’s interest in her.  She remains hopeful that her son is alive and never given up that hope as she continued looking for him, even when everyone thinks that she’s crazy, even her own son Jonathan (played by Charlie Heaton) and the local sheriff Jim (played by David Harbour).  Her son and the sheriff get bogged down in the mystery surrounding Will disappearance, as does Mike’s older sister Nancy (played by Natalia Dyer).

Speaking of the mystery… I won’t.  It's better you just see it!

Just rest assured, the way everything comes together in later episodes is very well done.  In fact, the whole show is very well done.  Because it’s set in the 80’s everything is from that time period.  It’s so well done, you would think the show was made way back then and just held in a vault for 20 years.  The clothing, props, etc. are all very realistic and show life from way back when.  The acting is top notch as well.  As stated before the kids deliver very authentic performances.  Each has a great character arc throughout the series.  The one that particularly stands out is Gaten Matarazzo, whose foul mouth insights will probably make him a fan-favorite.  

As many are saying, this show is almost nostalgia porn.  There are many influences from the past on this show.  The kids are straight out of E.T., Stand by Me, or The Monster Squad.  The mysterious monster is mostly left unseen like in Jaws, Alien, and many other monster movies of the past.  There’s a definite Stephen King influence, and Eleven’s powers are straight out of Firestarter.  However, the show never feels like it’s “ripping off” many of these classics, but rather paying a loving homage to past films.  The soundtrack is quintessentially 80’s as well.  The theme music is very much of most John Carpenter films, and the music played is a trip down memory lane.  There will be some fans who can nitpick the fact that some of the songs on the soundtrack might not have come out during the exact time frame the show is center in, or the lack of racial diversity in the show (even though one of the kid heroes Lucas is black), but these are small things.  Stranger Things is a great and wonderful addition to your Netflix queue.  There are only eight episodes for the show, and because each episode ends with you wanting more.  When you are done with the eight episode, you really want a second season to begin immediately!  As Netflix continues to grow in Original Programming, this show is helping them compete with HBO, and AMC in a big way!