For those of you without Netflix or perhaps not that into pop culture, a new show was recently released on Netflix called Stranger Things. Now I know I said I was going to focus on movie reviews for a bit, but I decided to take a break from those and review this show as I just finished binge-watching it and I think it’s worthy of a review.
Broadly put, Stranger Things is about this boy Will who goes missing, a strange girl with powers named Eleven who appears, and the subsequent insane things that are revealed through efforts to find Will and figure out Eleven. I don’t want to talk about the plot-line of the show too much because I think it’s just absolutely fantastic and something people should experience without being spoiled by me.
From what I’ve been able to glean from the internet, this original series actually pays homage to the 80’s and references the work of a lot of people (Steven Spielberg (E.T.), Stephen King (Carrie), George Lucas (Star Wars), etc.). I’m not really an 80’s kid so I don’t have too much knowledge about those sort of things (aside from like the most obvious phenomena like Dungeons & Dragons), but even I could pick up some of the 80’s references. As a result, I think 80’s kids would really like this show. But honestly, even kids not of the 80’s would like this as I’m a kid of the 90’s and I really enjoyed this show, as did my younger brother whose a kid of the late 2000’s (is that even the correct term? LOL idk?). That said, I think it’s also important to mention the genre of the show as it makes an impact as to how you enjoy the show. The show falls into the supernatural, sci-fi, horror, mystery, thriller genre(s) and hence the plot-line isn’t really what you’d call ‘real life.’ I personally enjoy that/ those genre’s (despite the fact that I’m a big scaredy cat and the horror genre freaks me out) and I enjoyed watching it. If you don’t like those genres, then I’d caution you when watching.
Anyways, since I already stated that I won’t talk about the plot too much, I’m going to focus on the other, more technical aspects like characters, acting, writing, directing, pacing, and music.
In terms of characters, I found that despite the fact that the series was only 8 episodes with a run time of about 45-55 minutes per episode, most characters were actually pretty well fleshed out and some even got to undergo fantastic character arcs. One arc that particularly stood out to me, was that of Steve’s, the boyfriend of the sister of one of Will’s friends, Nancy. Steve begins the story as the stereotypical popular, good-looking, rich guy. He charms his way into Nancy’s heart and then finds himself heartbroken and lashes out in some bad ways. However, near the end of the series, he turns around and redeems himself. He disassociates from his bad company, feels remorse for his actions, attempts to fix his mistakes, and even comes to help out the people he thought betrayed him. Personally, I thought it was a rather fantastic arc. In most typical high school stories, the character represented by Steve (mean top dog) usually ends up being unmasked as this asshole. Yet, in Stranger Things, Steve goes through character development and emerges a more well rounded character.
Similarly, his girlfriend Nancy also changes. From being the studious and preppy girl with a crush on Steve, Nancy transforms into a semi-badass with a vendetta to repay. She actually holds a gun and everything. It was really nice seeing that. One of my favourite parts about her story, was the way she did not pursue anything with the brother of the missing boy, Jonathan, and didn’t care about what Steve thought when she was on her mission of revenge. I just found it so satisfying that she was on a mission and didn’t let boys or love or any other sort of thing distract her. Yet, at the same time, she didn’t really lose her personality or femininity. I just really enjoyed watching that onscreen. I always appreciate it when girls are badass and still girly; I find it to be such a rare combination to appear on the screen.
On a different note, I also really enjoyed the characterization of one of Will’s friends, Lucas. Throughout the show, Will’s other friends, Mike and Dustin, seemingly come across as more likeable as they’re more willing to do crazy things to find Will and unflinchingly believe Eleven despite her elusiveness. Lucas, on the other hand, refuses to believe Eleven (until the very end) and remains very skeptical of her and other things. And I gotta say, I actually really enjoyed Lucas’s character. It was so nice to finally have a sane, skeptical friend onscreen; it sort of provided a seemingly realistic angle to the story. I mean, it’s always fun to watch people do crazy things like run from the police or telekinesis, but if that sort of stuff happened in real life, I feel like most of us would be skeptical and unsure about joining in. And to me, Lucas portrayed that hesitation and desire to follow the known perfectly. Of course near the end of the series, Lucas does finally accept that he wasn’t right to question everything and that Eleven was actually part of the ‘good’ guys. However, it was also really great to watch as he also evolves and goes through a great character arc.
Of course, it’s important to point out that not every character transforms and goes through a huge character development arc. For example, Jonathan, the brother of the missing Will, remains a wonderful brother dedicated to finding and protecting his brother from the beginning to the end. Similarly, after the major story ends, he also remains his quiet self, despite going on a huge journey with other people. And I think it was a smart move for the writers to have done this. To have every character go on some life-changing arc would be too much. Variety is always nice to see and sometimes characters don’t need to go through huge life-changing transformations in order to receive character growth. Also, I thought it would also be super unrealistic for the characters to have completely different personality traits after one week (the events in the show take place during one singular week). So I liked how the characterizations were balanced, with some character receiving huge life-changing arcs while others also had life-changing moments but didn’t completely change.
Coming to the next category, acting, I have to say and EACH and EVERY actor completely KILLED their role. I mean, seriously, I have not seen such a solid cast in a long time. Firstly, Winona Ryder was fabulous. I’ve loved her since I first saw her Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and have always thought of her as one of the most beautiful and fantastic actors around. So when I saw her name in credits I knew she would be wonderful, and of course she delivered. She was amazing as Will’s mother! She emoted helplessness, anger, hopefulness, confusion, sadness, and determination so wonderfully! There’s a few scenes in the movie where Joyce, her character, thinks that Will is speaking to her through the lights in their house and she literally grabs a ball of lights, cradles it, and talks to it as if it were Will. And I mean, when I was watching the seen, I 100% believed that she was talking to the Will and didn’t even think to doubt it. And then later on, I read an interview of hers where she said that doing that scene, talking to the lights, was one of the hardest scenes she had to do because it looked/ felt so dumb and I was awestruck because while watching that scene, I had no inkling that Winona felt dumb doing it or anything. She sold that scene across so well, it was insane. I believed it all. And she wasn’t the only stand out actor in the show!
The little girl who played Eleven, Mille Bobby Brown, was just fantastic too. In the show, Eleven is depicted as this strange girl with powers. She’s been locked up for years and doesn’t have much knowledge about the way the world functions and I thought Millie portrayed her wonderfully. I loved how Eleven would be so confused/ amazed at the things she saw, even if they were ordinary things. And I loved her reaction to having long hair for the first time. Even though Eleven didn’t say a lot of words, Millie emoted many emotions. Just great really.
On that note, I ADORED Will’s friends Dustin and Mike, Dustin especially. The actor playing Dustin, Gaten Matarazzo, was absolutely amazing! Dustin was seriously such a scene stealer! And Gaten played him super well, as this logical yet funny guy. My sister and I couldn’t get enough of him and it’s funny too because initially, Dustin comes across as kinda weird. Yet, as the show continues, he grows on you so much! Gaten did such a good job keeping Dustin the way he was. It would’ve been so easy for other actors to go crazy and make Dustin too outlandish or too boring. But he kept him reined it and wonderful. Same with Finn Wolfhard who played Mike. To me, it felt like the Mike actor was fearless. He played Mike with such abandon, as he was super passionate, open, believing of all of the strange things, and willing to do whatever to find Will and keep Eleven safe. And on that note, I have to say that all three boys, Gaten, Finn, and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), had amazing chemistry. It really felt like you were seeing three best friends on screen, rather than actors who had met a few weeks ago. Despite my love for Winona, I feel like the trio (well foursome with Eleven/ Will) were the real stars of the show. The chemistry between them felt super organic and was wonderful to watch. But I think that can also be attributed, in part, to the good script.
I found the writing for this show to be really wonderful. The plot-line itself was a mix of familiar and new items but the way it was presented onscreen felt quite fresh. There were quite a few scenes/ instances that I quite enjoyed. For example, I really liked the foreshadowing present in the first episode wherein Mike basically narrates the whole story in simpler terms while playing D&D with his friends. Subtle things like that made for a nice watching experience. And there were small funny scenes that I really enjoyed as well. For example, when the boys first come across Eleven, they aren’t sure that she can talk or hear. So to test her hearing, Dustin randomly begins clapping his hands together in her face to see if she flinches (LOL). While it’s not that funny written down on my blog, I can assure you that it was hilarious on TV. Similarly, I also liked the dialogue/ language used in the script. I especially found the language employed by the younger kids to be really well done and be age appropriate (LOL). It added a sense of realism that I appreciated. In general, I felt like the writing was fresh, funny, and entertaining. As I mentioned in another review, I feel like a good script can really elevate the show/movie and I think that it was the case here as well.
And I feel like the directing also played a large role. I really enjoyed the way the show was shot. Despite the fact that there were quite a few familiar scenes that were intended to pay homage to older 80’s film, I felt like the directing helped with making the story-line fresher. The cinamatography in particular was quite well done in my opinion. The look of the Upside Down itself was quite interesting and I really appreciated how the monster and its surroundings were given a darker, bluish tinge. On that note, I loved how the show wasn’t too dark, in terms of lighting. I often find that in an attempt to be scary or mysterious, some filmmakers tend to darken their shots in an effort to create a dark atmosphere and heighten the tension by taking advantage of the fact that the darkness causes actions to appear unclear. However, in Stranger Things, the directors didn’t go down that route. To be clear, some scenes were definitely darker in lighting than others, but it wasn’t so dark that you couldn’t see anything. Despite watching the show in darkness (all the lights were turned off), I could still see everything clearly and I think it actually made the whole viewing experience much more enjoyable for me.
That said, I actually did find the pacing of the show to be a bit slow at times. The story itself moved along at a relatively quickly pace, but there were definitely certain moments that could have been sped up. However, that’s only a minor complaint.
Finally, adding to the wonderful mix of elements already present, the music in this show was awesome. I LOVED the theme/ title song. I know other people felt like the theme song was more upbeat or whatever, but to me, it perfectly symbolized the creepy, unsettling, but not completely unusual tone of the story-line. I loved hearing it and would always listen to the entire opening just to hear the song. And the other songs played in the show worked really well too.
All in all, a pretty awesome show, one that I highly recommend to people with Netflix to watch and to people without Netflix to find online/torrent and watch.
My rating: Definitely watch it for the 80’s nostalgia, cliche good vs. evil/ students vs. the world plot, the chemistry between the leads, and the awesome overall experience of a creepy mystery show.