Skip to main content

Focus Features 'THE MUSTANG' Official Trailer

TV Review: Stranger Things

Netflix series is well-done but too beholden to other things.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest attempt to usurp broadcast television for all your serialized needs, wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. The series is a hodgepodge of 1980s pop-culture mainstays, primarily Steven Spielberg’s Amblin output, Stephen King’s earlier work and Stand By Me. Spielberg gets most of the glory here, all told. Stranger Things is especially interested in training its Spielbergian cut-through-the-darkness-and-fog flashlight beams on E.T., Gremlins and The Goonies, with a dash of Poltergeist for good measure. It aims to pull some Tarantino alchemy by bending blatant homage into something bold and original. A noble goal to be sure, but not one the series quite achieves.

It’s 1983 in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana and we are introduced to a foursome of lovable nerds, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and lisping, front-toothless Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo, the standout). This motley crew isn’t terribly popular at school, but finds solace in each other’s company, whiling away hours with role-playing games in Mike’s basement and communicating via walkie-talkies. After a mysterious incident transpires at a clandestine government facility just outside of town (shades of King’s The Mist), Will vanishes one night after being pursued by a seemingly unearthly assailant. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes unhinged with grief and worry while gruff police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) leads the manhunt. Will’s three friends take it upon themselves to find their friend, but instead they find a strange young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) in the woods, with a shaved head, a haunted aura and a limited vocabulary. The boys quickly surmise that this girl, who calls herself Eleven, is mixed up in all of this and might be the key to finding Will.


Stranger Things is evoking many things, but E.T. is probably chief among its role models. Eleven essentially fills the same role as the alien in that film, standing as a strange, benevolent, otherworldly figure for them to befriend and hide out from their parents, while also protecting from the clutches of sinister government forces, headed up here by Matthew Modine. The series has the precise same aim as J.J. Abrams’ own ‘80s-set Amblin tribute Super 8. That film also had a nerdy group of kids in a small town contending with a runaway monster, shady military figures, a troubled chief of police and concerned parents in an adventure brazenly designed to harken back to the pop culture of the era in which it depicts. Stranger Things is more successful at this game than the muddled, forgettable Super 8 was, but not by enough. By miring itself in reverence in other works, it often doesn’t emerge as its own unique entity. Just because you tackle Spielberg don’t make you Spielberg.

The mythology of the series isn’t strong enough to elevate it beyond its inspirations. We learn that the government officials presiding over Hawkins Laboratories, headed up forebodingly by Modine’s spookily blank Dr. Brenner, have cracked interdimensional travel, harnessing Eleven’s psychic powers to break through to “the Upside Down,” a shadowy parallel universe that is home to the monster—who resembles a cross between a miniature Cloverfield monster and a Venus flytrap—who freely traverses both worlds. As the series digs deeper and deeper into the particulars of what’s going on, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing of what it’s doing is all that novel. Eleven’s gifts, the monster, the Upside Down, the way unseen forces seem to haunt Joyce’s house, it’s all too familiar, too lacking in fresh idiosyncrasy. By the time our heroes are visiting the other dimension or confronting its scaly occupant, we’re waiting for some spark of newness to ignite and it never quite does.


Where Stranger Things excels is in the details. It recreates the early 1980s in loving and painstaking detail, right down to the commercials and frozen food logos inherent to the era. The hairstyles and clothing are all period-accurate, cutting no corners the way that many ‘80s-set productions often do. And even though the series isn’t shy about letting then-contemporary references to pop culture fly, its allusions all feel organic, not winky in that Wedding Singer way. Its amazing synthwave score also calls to mind the John Carpenter films of the day. The manner in which Stranger Things opens a gateway to the strange and extraordinary dimension of 1983 is one of its biggest strengths.

Its other biggest strength lies with its cast. The five principal child actors are all engaging and authentic, and the burgeoning first-love relationship between Mike and Eleven carries with it some of that old Wonder Years sweetness. Ryder is the biggest name among the adult cast (apart from Modine, who never breaks through the barriers separating character from archetype), but her performance is so constantly locked into parental hysteria that it grows a bit wearying. However, the greatest player in Stranger Things has to be Harbour’s Hopper, a born protector with just enough of an angry, dangerous edge to keep him intriguing.

Stranger Things ends on an ambiguous note, essentially making plain the intentions for a second season. I can’t help but wonder if the series might work best as a one-off, even if its positive reception makes that impossible. There is little of its existing mythology that seems to warrant further exploration and it has basically squeezed every last drop of Spielberg Juice from its influences. It feels like it accomplished everything it set out to do, leaving little on the table for future use. As hung up on Steven Spielberg as it is, it’s worth noting that the maestro never made a second E.T. movie. Maybe take that fact as your inspiration.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Giveaway: @SwissArmyMan Prize Pack

In celebration of Swiss Army Man opening this Friday, we were provided with an Awesome giveaway for our fans out there.



See how to enter after the Jump...

Prize pack will include a large Manny beach towel and a tote bag



Email us at giveaways@sandwichjohnfilms.com
Subject-Swiss Army Man
Name & mailing address

Outrageously fun and deeply affecting, Swiss Army Man is a gonzo buddy comedy that is the feature film debut of acclaimed music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (collectively known as DANIELS, and responsible for the visionary “Turn Down For What” video, among many others). Bursting with limitless creativity in both form and content, Swiss Army Man goes from the absurd to the emotional to the whimsical to the profound and back again.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island, having given up all hope of ever making it home again. But one day everything changes when a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore; the two become fast friends…

Enter For A Chance To Win Pass To See VICE In Dallas

Enter For A Chance To Win Pass To See VICE on December 17th at 7:30 PM in Dallas.

VICE explores the epic story about how a bureaucratic Washington insider quietly became the most powerful man in the world as Vice-President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.



CLICK HERE TO ENTER-

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/ViceMovie
TWITTER: https://twitter.com/ViceMovie
INSTAGRAM: https://instagram.com/ViceMovie
https://www.vice.movie/
#ViceMovie

SEATING IS LIMITED, SO ARRIVE EARLY.

PASS DOES NOT GUARANTEE A SEAT AT THE SCREENING.

This screening will be monitored for unauthorized recording. By attending, you agree not to bring any audio and/or visual recording device including laptop computers into the theater and you consent to physical search of your belongings and person have against you. Unauthorized recording will be reported to law enforcement and may subject you to criminal and civil liability (including damages up to $150,000). *Thi…

Enter For A Chance To Win Pass To See IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK In Dallas #BEALESTREET

Enter For A Chance To Win Pass To See IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK on December 20th at 7:30 PM in Dallas.

Set in early-1970s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple’s unbreakable bond and the African-American family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (screen newcomer KiKi Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.



CLICK HERE TO ENTER-

SEATING IS LIMITED, SO ARRIVE EARLY.

PASS DOES NOT GUARANTEE A SEAT AT THE SCREENING.

This screening will be monitored for unauthorized recording. By attending, you agree not to bring any audio and/or visual recording device including laptop computers into the theater and…