Critical Review 1: Stranger Things Season 1(2016)

              In pop culture society, there always tends to be movies and TV shows which tap into the nostalgia of the American public, as seen with shows like the 60’s inspired Mad Men, or the 70s inspired That 70’s Show. However, within the past five to ten years, the focus of american nostalgia has inevitably turned to the 1980s. With many Gen-Xers beginning families of their own, shows such as the family sitcom The Goldbergs and films such as the Transformers franchise and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have tapped into 1980s nostalgia with full force. Despite these shows and films gathering their own success and popularity, none of them have been as successful as the 2016 Netflix drama Stranger Things. Written and created by TV writers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is a Sci-Fi mystery as well as an homage to 1980s pop culture and the popular creators of the decade including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and John Carpenter to name a few. The show follows supernatural  mystery that unfolds in a small Indiana town in 1983 after the sudden disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and the arrival of one little girl with psychokinetic powers and an affinity for Eggo waffles known only as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). The Story itself is told from the perspectives of various parties, including Will’s close friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McCaughlin) and Dustin(Gaten Matarazzo), his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and his boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), and Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), as they frantically search for Will, uncover Government secrets, and face the supernatural threat of a dimension hopping creature known as The Demogorgon.

     Aesthetically, Stranger Things is a visual masterpiece that manages to combine new age visual effects and production value with practical effects, lighting, and color schemes that are incredibly reminiscent of classic 1980s horror and sci-fi films. For instance, in the beginning of the first episode, the show establishes its early 80’s vibe with large amounts of fake wood paneling in the set design, sepia tones and synthesizer orchestration reminiscent of films like Tron. Right before the opening credits roll, the creators use a combination of lighting, or in this case lack thereof, contrast between Will’s bright clothing and the eerie surroundings of his darkened home, alternating closeups and medium to medium wide shots, and suspenseful orchestration and sound design of the Demogorgon’s voice to create a mise en scene reminiscent of early 80s slasher films like Friday the 13th or The Thing. Lighting in general plays an important role in the show’s story, since it’s used as a form of communication.

     As mentioned earlier, the story itself is told from a few different main perspectives which intertwine over the eight episode story arc. For the majority of the season, the story focuses around the story arcs of two main groups: The kids, consisting of Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Eleven, and the main adults, Chief Hopper and Joyce. Although there are other side stories that further expand on individual character arcs and relations, particularly with Mike’s older sister Nancy and Will’s older brother Jonathan. For instance, the kid’s story primarily focuses around the mysterious Eleven, her abilities, and her personal connection with the “Upside Down,” an alternate universe in which the monstrous Demogorgon keeps Will captive. This arc in particular pays homage to classic sci-fi films like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. For instance, in Episode seven, there’s a chase scene in which the kids are trying to keep Eleven safe from government scientists, similar to the flying scene from E.T. However, instead of Eleven making the boy’s bikes fly, she uses her mind to flip the van that the scientists were chasing them in.

As for the story arc of Joyce and Hopper, it primarily focuses on Joyce’s obsession with trying to find her son and her eventual discovery that Will is not in their dimension. This scene in particular is one of the more memorable moments from the show, involving a series of Christmas lights tacked to the wall to make a “keyboard” for Will to use to warn his mother of the Demogorgon’s arrival.

     Overall, by paying homage to 1980s sci-fi and horror classics through lighting and sound aesthetics and storytelling similarities, while combining it with modern day technology, Stranger Things has been able to stand out among an increasing number of streaming shows from both Netflix and other providers. After premiering in mid-July of 2016, the show quickly gathered a large cult following, achieving mainstream popularity similar to the likes of shows such as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. The show was also nominated for countless awards, and won many others, the most prestigious being a Screen Actor’s Guild award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. If you have the time and a Netflix account, I would highly recommend this show to any fan of 1980s American film, pop culture, or Sci-fi fans in general.


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