'Why do you want to build a sensory deprivation tank?' 'Fun?'
|A mash up of Spielberg, King, Carpenter and Repo Man (1984).|
(Image copyright: Netflix)
I love it when a TV series seems to come out of nowhere and captures everyone’s imagination. This month that’s been the case with Netflix’s Stranger Things, created by the unlikely sounding partnership of The Duffer Brothers.
Rather charmingly, it’s a mash up of Steven Spielberg’s movies ET – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, cute misfit kids racing about on bikes, involved with a strange outsider), John Carpenter’s 1980s film oeuvre, the horror novelist Stephen King – a character is seen reading one of his books in one scene – with a dash of Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985, a misfit kids’ gang again) and Repo Man (1984): disaffected teenagers mixed up with sinister government types trying to suppress the leak of a paranormal conspiracy.
Appropriately, at the heart of the series are two iconic 1980s actors. Matthew Modine (Married to the Mob, Birdy, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) is glacially cool, amoral scientist Dr. Martin Brenner, complete with white hair and sharp three-piece suit, looking like Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill (1985 – C.W. was the best thing in that film, incidentally). Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers, Great Balls of Fire!), as neurotic mum Joyce Byers, is clearly going for an Emmy and deservedly so.
There’s also brilliant newbie on the scene (new to me, anyway). David Harbour’s Lee Marvin-voiced Sheriff Hopper, simmering with a troubled history and on medication, is not above beating up suspects to get information.
Give him his own series.
As for the angelic Millie Bobby Brown playing the abused ‘Eleven’… the range of emotion she projects through minimal facial expressions is extraordinary.
Stranger Things is ‘1980s’ in a lot less shouty way than Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010), a relatively recent series also set at the beginning of the decade. For instance, part of solving the mystery is based around photographs that have to be manually developed, instead of using a conspicuously ‘80s angle like, say, the technology on the Space Shuttle or referencing a programme on the new Disney channel. Elsewhere, the musical tastes of Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) include The Clash and Joy Division – well researched, very early ‘80s indie – that are selectively and dramatically used, rather than plastered all over the soundtrack.
The storytelling is clear and unpretentious; accordingly, the cinematography is lit in a very ‘80s way, alternatively washed out, garish or murky. The use of three generations – kids, teens and adults – to tell the story is a simple idea that works fantastically well, often to great comic effect. This is particularly true of the gang of Mike (Finn Wolfhard - really), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), as they compare the strange happenings to Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars. Pleasingly, the outsiders in every generation emerge as the heroes, another Spielbergian theme.
Stranger Things runs to eight episodes, so you could devour it one binge sitting. All the threads of the story are satisfyingly tied up, but like all good script writers the Duffers have left the way open for more. I almost hope the series’ production team resists the temptation, as these eight episodes are almost perfect.
Still, I’d be more than happy be happy to enjoy the company of Hopper, Mike, Joyce and co. second time around.