***Spoiler Warning: This post contains Stranger Things series Spoilers***
You might think it’s easy to copy elements from beloved books and movies and roll them up into a lovingly made series dedicated to a decade’s vibe and aesthetic, but you’d be dead wrong. Then again, maybe it could be easy to throw in this homage or that and call it a day; it’d likely turn out a helluva mess. That’s why with Stranger Things writer/directors, the Duffer Brothers — aka Matt and Ross — have accomplished something so wonderfully magical. While we’re happily strolling down memory lane, experiencing our own strange flashbacks for everything from Firestarter, Carrie, The Talisman, and E.T to The Goonies, Alien, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, and Pan’s Labyrinth, we never feel like anything is a retread. Rather, we’re basking in nostalgia sprinkled along an Oz-ish path, on an entirely new journey with a wonderful group of fast, fierce, ferociously loyal friends.
As played by Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, and Millie Bobby Brown, young — as I like to call him –“Toothless Dustin”, Lucas, Mike, and Eleven are the 8-part series’ heart and soul. Though we meet their quickly disappeared friend Will (Noah Schnapp) early on and discover the kids’ bond through their dedication to finding him, it’s the rest of the D&D playing pals who must translate their game skills to hunting a terrifying, real-life alien monster (who, at first, resembles Del Toro’s Pale Man, and later turns out to be a Venus flytrap-headed creature who seems to be part of a larger Alien-like entity[ies]). Surrounding the boys and, later, their adopted Eleven are assorted family and friends, amazingly as affecting and wonderful in their own reminiscent ways. As Will and Mike’s older siblings, Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer, who’s practically Emmy Rossum’s younger twin) and their friends (and frenemies) bring back the days of Stephen King’s Christine and Carrie: they’re the awkward teens, one outcast and one attempting to fit herself in with the popular (jerky) crowd after being pursued by on-the-fringe Steve (Joe Keery). Every single young person on this show is just fantastically talented, actors well beyond their years, but it is 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown’s incredible, often silent performance that will grab hold of you and twist your insides. Winona Ryder may have provided the initial star-power that brought in viewers, but it’s Brown and her captivating new buddies who’ll keep you watching. Keep an eye on this girl, because she will one day win Emmys and Globes and Oscars, oh, my.
From her mysterious introduction to her curious powers, Eleven and the unwanted associated governmental fascination is as much a puzzle we want to solve as Will Byers’ disappearance; their connection evident, but still elusive. Like a more palatable — if less cuddly — version of E.T., Mike feels for and hides away his new, possibly alien friend without any idea she might be able to help him find his missing one; the converging stories pull together like rewinding tiny shards of broken glass before the mirror broke. Of the misfit group of sidekicks, Toothless Dustin and Lucas are the standout friends your kidbrain still remembers, standing up to bullies and making up after silly fights. For us grownups, there are wonderful childhood callbacks of frantically riding bikes home, afraid of dark woods and the sound of a snapping branch; the heart-pounding terror of imaginary boogiemen chasing us down. Across living rooms … and Twitter and Facebook, you could *hear* the conversations spurred as thousands of adults recalled the freedom of running around hometowns without fear (or, depending on where you live, helicopter parents) beyond the ones in their minds, of phones connected to walls by cords, and funny antennae that had to be manipulated on grandparents’ televisions.
For their part, the “older” Stranger Things actors are nearly as good as the leading kids: Winona Ryder’s frantic and increasingly desperate Joyce rigs up her home like a proper Close Encounters fanatic, not knowing exactly how or why, only that she has a feeling about a Poltergeist/Talisman-ish way to stay in touch with her son in the Upside-Down. She may be a teensy bit older in number, but, seeing Ryder back onscreen, you’d swear she’s barely changed from Reality Bites‘ days — well … that haircut, though (SO BAD). David Harbour’s disconnected (later, haunted) Chief Hopper transforms from lackadaisical to intense, brought back to life when he allows himself to feel his own connection to Eleven and Will. Once Hopper realizes he can affect, after years of feeling helpless in an uncontrollable and emotional situation in his own life, the Chief rediscovers the determined father inside himself — the man we’d all want by our sides. As creepy overseer (and, devastatingly, “Papa”) of all things Eleven and alien, Matthew Modine’s Dr. Martin Brenner strikes just the right slightly-less-awful-than Cigarette-Smoking Man vibe, often leaving us horrified, and sometimes affected by his rare tender moments, soothing Eleven as he carries her to safety.
Like Mr. Robot, Stranger Things wisely uses its opening credits and title (so glad about that Montauk name change) design to set the mood. From the electronic beats that evoke Terminator and Risky Business to its retro red font that reminds every King fan of their favorite dog-eared paperbacks to the series’ dirty coloring to its soundtrack and Star Wars references (“That’s like R2D2 going to fight Darth Vader”), the Duffers got everything right.
And like the best Stephen King’s books, we never wanted this wonderful series to end. With an ambiguous (is Eleven alive, as the Chief seems to think? What’s going to happen to Will? Do the Chief and Joyce get together?) finale, we’re all left wondering about other season(s); heck, we NEED Stranger Things, Season 2. Never fear: it seems the brothers Duffer carefully planned the cliffhanger, and their hopes are high for a Netflix renewal:
We leave these dangling threads at the end. If people respond to this show and we get to continue this story — we had those initial discussions of where we might go with it. If there was going to be a season two, we would reveal more of that 30 page document [explaining the Upside-Down world in depth], but we’d still want to keep it from the point of view of our original characters. [Ross Duffer]
All eight Stranger Things episodes are available on Netflix now, and you simply MUST watch them.
*Updated: Matthew Modine confirms Season 2, and producer Shawn Levy confirms the story will continue with the same characters, as well as introduce a few new folks.
We definitely are hopeful to go several more seasons. And the plan is to continue with this set of characters while introducing a few critical key new ones next season. So I’ll just say that a lot of the big mysteries get answered at the end of Season 1, but we are very much kind of unearthing new problems and questions that merit future stories and future investigation in the most enjoyable way. So we are in love with our cast and our characters. [Levy]