Stranger Things review: Netflix’s Spielbergian riddle, mystery and enigma
Stranger Things may be a throwback to the glorious heyday of Spielberg but owes just as grateful a debt to JJ Abrams, who is, in many ways, the Spielberg of our generation.
For an entire generation, the ‘80s were the best time to be a film geek. If there ever were to be an origin story for the rise of modern geekdom as we know it – populated by aliens, zombies and superheroes - it would unquestionably begin in the decade that gave us Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, David Lynch and John Hughes.
The new Netflix show Stranger Things borrows liberally from them all, an in doing so, reminds us that while tributes are great fun and not without their own charm, they’ll always remain just that – lesser, slighter, inferior tributes.
But I missed the ‘80s: They’re a decade I familiarised myself with later on, cramming film after film by the greats, spellbound by a bold new direction for modern movie-making. But I did, however, grow up on Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers and virtually every mystery series I could get my hands on. Imagine my delight then, at finding that Stranger Things borrowed not only from the magical ‘80s, but also from Enid Blyton.
Watch: Stranger Things featurette with Winona Ryder
It tells a story paced as sleepily as the small town in which it is set – a town in which the titular strange things begin happening when a young boy disappears. His best friends, and our trio of protagonists, take it upon themselves to solve the mystery of his disappearance even as they find themselves surrounded by ominous government agents, unexplained supernatural occurrences and a general sense of foreboding doom.
As much as the show is a throwback to the glorious heyday of Spielberg, it owes just as grateful a debt to JJ Abrams, who is, in many ways, the Spielberg of my generation. More than any movie by the great master, Stranger Things resembles Abrams’ Super 8 – to the point that it can easily qualify as a TV spinoff.
The show is set in 1983, the year the Empire Struck Back, and one year after ET flew across a full moon. For a bunch of kids obsessing over Star Wars and reading X-Men, imagine their conflicted emotions when a real-life ‘superhero’ arrives at their doorstep. But Eleven (that’s her name) isn’t really a superhero – even though the excited kids insist, mostly to themselves, that she is. Like Alton in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special (my favourite movie of 2016) and Cid in Rian Johnson’s Looper, Eleven is a ‘special’ child, pursued by ‘bad men’ and also the key to solving all the mysteries.
Stranger Things gets a lot right. Its creators, The Duffer Brothers, have a keen eye for period detail and leave their creative stamp, however unoriginal it is, across each of its 8 episodes. The tone is a familiar concoction of Spielberg magic and Hughes coming-of-age with a score that sounds like John Carpenter composed it himself. It is a nostalgic mix of monsters, broken families, REO Speedwagon and first love.
But what could have potentially been its biggest asset - and has been rather frequently touted as such - turns out to be, so unfortunately, its biggest disappointment instead. The promise of Winona Ryder’s return alone was enough of an attraction, but in the end, her performance is too loud, too high-pitched and too cartoonish. She never feels like she belongs in this world.
And what a wonderful world it is. A lovingly (re) created world that reminds us of a better time – when explosions weren’t the drug filmmakers were slipping audiences and when characters and story were the key instead. Stranger Things doesn’t come close to the greats, but few things can.
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan