In a world dominated by political unrest, violence, and economic upheaval it is all too tempting to yearn for the stability of a simpler time. Through the mere passage of time eras passed seem to lose their flaws as they take on the inviting glow of nostalgia. Capitalizing upon the recent nostalgia for all things 1980’s the hit Netflix drama Stranger Things serves as an apt tribute to the sci-fi and adventure films of the 1980’s, while reminding us of the darker aspects of Cold War America that our nostalgia may have failed to account for.
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The story begins as an homage to the stereotypical 80’s childhood with middle school sci-fi and fantasy fan Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarrazzo). In typical latchkey kid fashion, the boys end the night by setting off for their respective homes alone on their bikes. The plot then takes a turn into classic sci-fi territory as Will is pursued by a mysterious unseen force until he finally vanishes, seemingly into thin air. The disappearance sparks a town-wide man-hunt after Will’s dedicated but harried mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), enlists the aid of cynical town sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour). While the case leaves the small mid-western town of Hawkins, Indiana shaken as residents struggle for answers, the matter is treated as a standard missing persons case. As Joyce, Hopper, and Will’s friends experience increasingly bizarre paranormal encounters, however, it becomes clear that Will’s disappearance is anything but standard, and Hawkins is far more than the quiet town that it appears to be. Eventually, the disappearance of a local teen, the mysterious activities at a top-secret government lab, and the arrival of a truly strange little girl converge to expose a web of corruption, espionage, and abuse that plunges viewers into the darkest corners of Cold War America.
Through its loving tribute to 80’s pop culture and skeptical approach to government that is equally applicable to the past and present Stranger Things reminds us of all that we miss in our past while serving as an apt warning for the future. The inclusion of government test subject Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in particular fuses these two elements to create a character who is equal parts familiar and original. The efforts of Mike, Lucas, and Dustin to hide Eleven in Mike’s basement in a disguise comprised of costume accessories directly recall the adventures of Elliott and E.T. In the midst of her comic adjustment to the outside world, however, the series never lets viewers forget the disturbing events that led to her arrival in Hawkins. Similarly, the boys’ interactions are directly reminiscent of both Stand By Me and The Goonies but still keep viewers engaged in their adventures. The story arcs featuring Mike’s seemingly perfect sister, Nancy, and Will’s social outcast older brother, Jonathan, also contain the genre tropes that catapulted John Hughes’ teen dramedies to classic status, but use them to create a story that is emotionally honest and timeless. While remaining within the context of Cold War paranoia, the series’ portrayal of anti-Soviet hysteria and citizens dismissed as collateral damage remains eerily relevant in today’s fraught political atmosphere. Through its fond glimpse at the past with a knowing nod to our own age, Stranger Things tells a truly unique tale that will resonate in any era.
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The out of this world plot would have remained grounded if not for the inspired performances of its cast. In a stroke of casting genius 1980’s and 1990’s indie ‘it girl’ Winona Ryder brings Joyce to life in a performance that covers all the stages of loss without striking a false note. David Harbour infuses his hardened sheriff with a charisma and cynical charm that makes Hopper a suburban take on Indiana Jones. Natalia Dyer is excellent in her role as good girl gone popular Nancy and brings a mix of innocence and adolescent angst to her role that would make Molly Ringwald proud. Charlie Heaton captures the awkwardness and kindness of social outsider Jonathan, making him a perfect foil to his rival for Nancy’s affections, charming but self-absorbed Steve. Even when surrounded by outstanding performances by their adult counterparts, the series belongs to its youngest cast members. Finn Wolfhard is a natural in his role as confident but protective group leader Mike. Caleb McLaughlin captures Lucas’ obstinacy and cynicism while still evoking the loyalty and kindness that he keeps carefully guarded. Gaten Matarazzo’s performance as Dustin strikes the ideal balance between comic and poignant as his character evolves from sidekick to the group’s voice of reason. Millie Bobbie Brown nearly steals every scene in which she appears as the enigmatic Eleven as she captures the role’s difficult combination of childlike innocence and beyond her years maturity.
Through its equal parts 1980’s nostalgia and modern insight Stranger Things relates an eerie tale of a community coming together in the face of adversity that will inspire viewers of any generation. The series’ combination of an intelligent script, retro atmosphere, and a truly stellar cast ensures that it more than earns its place as Netflix’s crown jewel. With laughter, romance, friendship, family, as well as the thrills and chills of the best in adventure and sci-fi, Stranger Things makes nostalgia the new cutting edge.
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