80’s pastiche is in full swing, and seems to be trending upward given the monstrous (pun intended) success of this year’s Netflix produced Stranger Things. However, show creators Matt and Ross Duffer (who primarily handle writing and directing duties as well), elevate their show by embracing their 80’s trappings and tropes and, rather than relegating them to set dressing or cheap nostalgia, craft their story around and within them in such a way that the period and reference points become intrinsic to the narrative.
That’s a long, vaguely analytical sentence that essentially means these characters live the atmosphere and references that the Duffer brothers are pulling. After a chilling, gleefully scary opening sequence that readily calls back to classic films such as Alien and The Thing we are thrown into the lives of Michael, Lucas, Dustin, and Will. They’re about 12 or 13. They’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, enthusiastically. Game master Mike throws down a Demagorgon figurine. The boys freakout. Behind them, a poster for the aforementioned Thing hangs on the wall. Shortly after the game Will disappears, kidnapped by some one or some thing, which throws the whole quiet Indiana town into a frenzy; this is a town where the last reported murder was in the 1920s. The opening credits are the coolest thing you’ll see this year, a series of close-ups on red, pulsing letters set to dancing synth music like something pulled straight from Escape from New York. I, for one, am totally cool with this pastiche because the Duffer brothers utilize it rather than rely on it.
The Duffer brothers throw in enough meta-narrative qualities to the story to both legitimize their homages and cliches as well as subvert the stereotypes with which they’re working (Nancy Wheeler, Mike’s older sister, even explicitly calls her jock boyfriend Steve “such a cliche”). The leap to greatness comes when the Duffer brothers move past the John Carpenter, the Stephen King, the Steven Spielberg and bury their story in those influences; the key word here is that Stranger Things is their story. An 8-episode slate allows interwoven narratives and plot point upon plot point, all of which build character and tension equally. On top of the missing kid, we get to know Will’s fraught family. Jonathon is a loner photography aficionado who listens to The Smiths (another stereotype the brothers inject with real character), and his mother, played by a brilliant Winona Ryder, is the first to tune in to the titular strange things. The other brilliant performance here is from David Harbour as Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper, whose arc throughout the 8 episodes I won’t reveal, but suffice to say it’s as substantial as you’ll see from a semi-secondary player in a large ensemble.
I won’t meander through summary of all the plot points. Stranger Things demands to be seen. A few characters come close to seemingly knowing that they’re in a television show, but the fourth wall is always firmly set. When Dustin and Lucas argue about the X-Men (regarding a mysterious girl with some mysterious abilities) it feels more like the Duffer’s are channeling their own kid debates rather than drawing on 80’s nerd culture for some simple character moments. In a season as rich in character as this, it’s a surprise that Stranger Things clips along as well as it does. Or not, as it draws from master thriller works like Carrie and Alien and The Thing in equal measure. The literary and cinematic influences are appropriate – Stranger Things is as economical and tight as a teleplay as it is cinematic, and is perhaps the most cinematic television show I’ve seen since Hannibal (a brilliant, bizarre, emotionally charged series that was cancelled far too soon). Every frame is rich and well-composed and ready for gliding camera moves and witty edits that push us scene-to-scene without missing a beat. It’s a gorgeous, riveting, thrilling, fun show. There might not be a lot in the way of layered themes (although I do think the Duffer brothers use their science fiction world and monsters as a nice lense through which to examine grief and grieving) but Stranger Things is the best summer movie you’ll see from 2016. In a summer of bland, middling, uninspired efforts Stranger Things is vital.