After a late night Dungeons and Dragons session with three friends in November 1983 in Hawkins, Ind., 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is chased home by a mysterious creature and vanishes.
In a secretive US Department of Energy lab near the town, a scientist is attacked by something unseen while attempting to flee from some kind of lab accident.
While friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas Sinclair (Calab McLaughlin) search for Will, against the instructions of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and their parents, they find a mysterious girl who calls herself “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown) and is marked with a tattoo of the same number on her arm. She soon begins to display strange telepathic powers and a possible connection to whatever took Will.
So opens the eight-episode first season of Stranger Things now streaming on Netflix.
Other major characters include Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Mike Wheeler’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who is starting a relationship with most-popular-guy-in-school Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) at the start of the series. She becomes involved in the mysterious events affecting the town for her own reasons.
The series is definitely a love letter to films of the 1980s, with influences from teen romances mixed in with major nods to John Carpenter, E.T. and the Alien films. There are touches of X-Files as well. Joyce Byers even plays a bit of a Mulder to Hopper’s Scully early on, before both become fully aware that something very strange is going on with Will’s disappearance.
While there is a touch of lightness and humor to the series, it’s also dark and tense and genuinely scary. It’s not clear even up to the last minute if everyone is going to make it out okay – and that’s awesome. There’s real tension here between the feeling that no one is safe and the writing making almost everyone sympathetic enough to make you care if they live or die.
I was three when the 80s ended, so I probably missed many references to specific films, though the parallels to E.T. and the visual cues from Alien were not lost on me. Speaking of visuals, the effects were fantastic. I read that practical effects were used as often as possible for the creature and other sci-fi elements, with sparing CGI, and the attention to detail shows in how great everything looks. The 80s period also adds a visual flair that would have been missing is the series was set in present day.
A few parts of the finale are a bit weak visually, when practical effects reached their limit but the CGI wasn’t quite believable.
The show really stands out for its writing and acting. Ryder plays the terrified mother who appears to be losing her grip on reality and knows how crazy she looks even while she refuses to give up on her lost son. The three nerdy boys are all lovable dorks, believable middle school boys and their awkward friendship with the mysterious Eleven is (at the risk of sounding unmanly) adorable. The child actors in Stranger Things are all especially good, but every actor shines and almost every named character feels like a real, complex person.
The exception is some of the antagonists from the government lab, who read as one-dimensional characters without complex motivations and without any character arcs.
The answers to the mystery of the creature, Will’s disappearance, the secret lab and Eleven’s connections to the whole thing are given piecemeal over the course of the show’s eight hours, with enough answers to be satisfying but not so much that they remove any sense of wonder from the show’s finale.
There is one glaring exception in episode 6, where one answer (that astute viewers will have already guessed correctly) is spelled out explicitly in a ham-fisted manner that doesn’t flow at all. I won’t spoil it here, but it felt very out of place.
Despite the series’ obvious love for the 80s, the characters frequently play against type and the story progression subverts movie tropes as often as it celebrates them. The ending also leaves the door open for more mystery in a possible second season, which I’m personally hoping for.
Stranger Things can be streamed on Netflix at any time.