by Sandy DeVito
I love everything about 80's pop culture. Synthy electronic and power ballads, giant hair, neon lights, hunky dudes with mullets. I've often been caught proclaiming to friends that I wish I'd been a teen in the 80's. That would have been my time to shine, you know? I was born in 1987, so by the time I could walk, talk, read or ride a bike, I was well entrenched in the 90's, the age of Britney Spears, chokers, smiley faces and clogs. But like many of my generation (I guess I'm "first-wave millennial"?), something about the 80's really gets to me. Maybe it's the idea of a slightly simpler existence without the internet and cellphones and mass information, when reading a book or a newspaper were regular pastimes that everyone indulged in, and there was no Instagram to be fomo'd by. I grew up pretty poor in a rural area, and didn't have access to a lot of the stuff other people my age did. I spent most of my early life playing old computer games on floppy disks, watching beat up VHS tapes, and reading a LOT of books. So in a lot of ways, my early life resonated more with the 80's than the generation I was born into. Or maybe I'm drawn to it all because I just like the idea of having outrageously huge hair that's actually in style. Or maybe it's the fact that almost every movie I really love came out in that era.
I also love Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. Those Steves. They know the cool stuff I like--spooky shit, aliens, the paranormal. For those keeping score, Pet Sematary is my favorite King, Close Encounters my favorite Spielberg. I wasn't given a chance to be into King until later due to an overprotective mother, but I grew up watching Spielberg movies. Jurassic Park, E.T., Indiana Jones - they were a part of my childhood in a big way, and that's one of the reasons why as soon as I heard about Stranger Things, the new nostalgia sci-fi horror series by Netflix, I was excited. After watching the trailer it was obvious that this show was going to pay homage to Spielberg and King in myriad big ways - that without them, this show would not exist.
And after watching it, I can confirm: Stranger Things is an homage to Spielberg and King, among others (John Carpenter, David Lynch), and to the nostalgia of their best works and the land of analog and ATARI. It was created by Mike and Ross Duffer, who've also done episodes of Wayward Pines (a show that was obviously deeply influenced by the works of Lynch) - and these guys clearly love genre movies. The crew at Moviejawn has commissioned me to write a per-episode series of reviews to break down just what exactly Stranger Things is all about: its triumphs and its flaws. So strap on your hazmat suit and crank up the synthesizer. Time to go down the rabbit hole into the Upside-Down.
Episode 1, titled The Vanishing of Will Byers, already a bit of a spoiler in its own right, starts with a classic text screen, allowing us to adjust our mentality to fit the exposition we're about to experience. The setting is Hawkins, Indiana - nowheresville, in other words. The date is November 6th, 1983 - so we're past Halloween, but not yet at Christmas, an emotionally charged time of year. We are in a clinical facility of some nature, and it's night - the camera pans down from a starry sky to its austere hallways. Suddenly, a man in a lab coat crashes through a doorway - he's running, in a panic. He sprints to a nearby elevator of some kind, looking behind him, frantically pushing the button to close the door. We hear a strange sound, like that of a huge predator. It seems to be behind him, but then he looks up and is snatched into the abyss, out of our sight. Whatever the nature of this beast, it claims him, and he's gone.
Meanwhile, in the basement of his parent's house, Mike Wheeler and his closest friends Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, and Will Byers are entrenched in a serious game of Dungeons & Dragons. "Something's coming," Mike whispers, "something hungry for blood." He slams a tentacle-y character piece on the board. "The DEMOGORGON!" The boys all howl. This scene is set up perfectly for us to get to know these boys individually and in the context of this time period and story. Will (Noah Schnapp) is the catalyst for the events that will transpire here: he's the sensitive one, entrenched in his inner world even before something crazy happens to him, and the other boys are his surrounding archetypes. Mike (Finn Wolfhard - he has such a great name) is the natural leader, clear-headed and good at making quick decisions. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is the voice of reason, cautious and organized. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is both our comic relief (within and without the story he has cleidocranial dysplasia, which causes him to speak with a lisp due to no front teeth, making him utterly endearing) and our emotional wingman - his toothless grin and chubby cheeks lend sincerity to his erstwhile nature. They aren't the cool kids - they're playing D&D after all - but they are obviously devoted to each other as only preteen friends can be. It soon becomes clear that the young actors who play these boys (and Millie Bobbi Brown, the mysterious Eleven) will transcend the parameters of the nostalgia and framework of this tale. They are its beating heart and soul, and everything else in the show pales in comparison to them. They bring it all to life.
Will vanishes that night after being pursued by something strange he encounters in the woods on the way home - we aren't clear on what exactly, but it probably has something to do with what took the lab coat guy in the opening. Flash forward to the next morning: Will's stressed out mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) realize Will isn't in his bedroom. It soon becomes apparent that Will might have never made it home the night before from the Wheeler's house. We meet the other main players in this story in these first few scenes: Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the Hawkins town sheriff, a man clearly burying himself in certain vices and good at hiding his real self (we find out only that he used to have a daughter who died through some exposition in this episode). When Joyce reports Will missing, he insists the boy must be fine. "99 times out of 100 the kid is with a friend or a relative," he tries to point out reassuringly. "What about the other time?" Joyce frantically insists. "You said 99 out of 100, what about the other time, the ONE?" Examining the inexplicable and trying to come up with ways to explain it is an odd pastime we humans indulge in. Sometimes we just can't wrap our minds around the fact that maybe crazy shit exists out there in the universe. We the audience already know something weird is going on in this town, having been privy to that opening scene, but most of these ordinary people don't, a device Stephen King in particular has used countless times in his many classic novels to bring us closer to them, to make them relatable. Hopper mentions that the weirdest thing that's ever happened in Hawkins in the four years he's been sheriff is an owl flying into a woman's head because it thought her hair was a nest. This small town and its Perfectly Ordinary inhabitants are a direct nod to King - they are woefully unprepared for the events that await them. It's so great to see Ryder in a role like this again, one of complexity and emotion, giving her a chance to once again remind us how visceral an actress she really is. Joyce immediately elicits empathy and concern from the audience in Ryder's capable hands. Will and Jonathan's dad, Lonnie, isn't really in the picture, and Ryder makes it clear to us that being a single mom has already been taking its toll on Joyce without one of her children going missing. The immediate likability of the boys, Hopper, and Joyce hooked me utterly.
We see the boys heading to school, wondering where Will is but unfazed and assuming he went to class early, encountering two bullies who pick on them regularly (school bullies also being a hallmark of this genre and time period), who mock Dustin for his lisp. We also meet Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who's one of the group of teenagers - in my mind mostly included for the chance at non-gross-out romance and someone for the teens who watch this show to relate to - also featured in this narrative. Nancy is at first glance atypical, a conscientious student, a bit of a nerd, "a good girl," but her new boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) is from a hipper crowd and she can't help but want to rise in the ranks of high school hierarchy. Her best friend Barbara (Shannon Purser), tall, plump and bespectacled, scolds her: "you're gonna be so cool now...you better hang out with me still." We get one of those classic boy-sneaks-in-through-the-bedroom-window scenes in this first episode, but Nancy rejects Steve's breathless kisses and advances, insisting they need to study. So much in this first episode feels like something we've seen before; the weight of the dusty nostalgia permeates everything. This episode is truly a pilot in that everything feels like it's a set up for something that will come later, classically composed and paced. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, necessarily - and the cast is clearly so excellent that they somehow hook us again into this story we feel like we already know. But it does hint at the main problem I still had with the series by the end. There are SO MANY nods to great sci-fi and horror genre works of the past sometimes it feels like a greatest hits album - for instance, in a flashback in this first episode, Joyce goes to visit Will in his secret clubhouse to surprise him with tickets to see Poltergeist, then wonders if he'll be scared the way he was of clowns - an obvious reference to Stephen King's It, while the camaraderie of Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin recalls Stand by Me. Sometimes it sticks so stalwartly to nostalgia that it often neglects to break outside of that mold and do anything new with the genre.
We return to the laboratory we saw in the first scene - "Hawkins National Laboratory", where a group of very official-looking people don hazmat suits and head into an area marked as quarantined. Here we see weird gooey stuff all over the walls, as if something organic is trying to break through...like, maybe something fucking weird, something existential. They seem mostly unfazed by this, as if it's something that was expected. The man who seems to be the leader of this group, white-haired, older, severe, says something about a girl who "can't have gone far." It's clear someone is missing from the lab and we cut to the next scene where a little girl, her head shaved and her feet bare, wearing a dirty hospital gown, is traveling through the woods, clearly on the run. She comes to a hamburger shack where a man named Benny catches her scarfing french fries in the kitchen, clearly starving. He attempts to get her to talk, but she's obviously traumatized. He notices the number "11" tattooed on her arm, though she is obviously prepubescent. "What's that mean?" he asks her. She point to herself. "Eleven." Benny calls social services, but when a woman arrives professing to be from them, as soon as he lets her inside, she shoots him. Eleven flees, that same group of shady officials from the laboratory in pursuit. Eleven is probably the most revolutionary aspect of this story in her way, as we'll come to know better in time. Millie Bobbi Brown is simply mesmerizing, and apparently can cry on demand at any time, since she has to do it often in the episodes to come. She elicits our instant desire to protect her, and a deep curiosity towards her secrets.
Mike, Lucas and Dustin are pulled away from tinkering with the new radio transmittor their science teacher, Mr. Clark, ordered for the classroom, to be questioned by Hopper regarding Will's disappearance. This is the first time they really find out he's missing, and they worriedly mention the path by which he always heads home - nicknamed Mirkwood from the forest in The Hobbit - to Hopper as the place they saw him last. They head out on their own that night to search for him in the woods in a rain storm (though Hopper is already leading his own search parties for the boy), but they are stunned to encounter someone else entirely: the strange, dirty, desperate Eleven, soaking wet, terrified, and illuminated in their flashlight beams.
We're eased into the mood of this story on all sides: classic tunes like Toto's Africa and Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit clue us in to the throwback and existential themes that will be expounded on for the rest of the show. The boys use huge walkie-talkies to chat to each other between their houses - no cellphones in 1983, kids. The synthy score, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Survive, is understated in this introduction, but immediately starts to lurk in your subconscious akin to John Carpenter's many memorable soundtracks. This all culminates in an earnest love letter of a pilot episode to everything that draws people to this kind of genre storytelling and the great genre films of the period in which this story is set; it evokes those emotions and those memories. In my initial reaction, I described it as a vibe, a knack, an understanding of what makes that stuff resonate with so many people still. It's as compelling a premise as anything Netflix has attempted so far, and the pilot certainly does not disappoint, introducing us immediately to a cast of characters who we instantly want to follow on this strange, spooky adventure.