Steven Spielberg’s BFG may have just slumped at the box office, but our appetite for a fresh shot of ‘80s nostalgia shows no sign of abating. With The Americans, Midnight Special and the new, all-female Ghostbusters to name but a few, screens both big and small are set on channeling that mystical vision of America where aliens exist, government agents should not be trusted and things really do go bump in the night. Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest binge-worthy offering courtesy of the Duffer Brothers, is one of the better efforts, superbly recapturing the vibe of the ’80s for a tense, charming, if slightly hackneyed, eight-part mystery thriller.
Set in one of those Anywhere American suburbs where the worst thing that every happened was an elderly resident being attacked by an owl – and that was because her hair looked like a nest – Stranger Things tells the tale of Will (Noah Schnapp), a boy who vanishes one evening while cycling home from a friend’s house. With no clues as to where he’s gone, the police, led by David Harbour’s surly Chief Hopper, are stumped by the disappearance while his mother (Winona Ryder) is being driven to her wits end as she starts getting phone calls she’s sure are from Will.
His friends, on the other hand, set out on their own rescue mission but instead stumble across a strange, short-haired girl with telekinetic powers. They name her Elle – short for the number 11 which is tattooed on her arm – and try to hide her in one of their parents’ basements. Meanwhile, a deliberately hidden-from-view monster escapes from a secret government facility and appears to be responsible for a spate of town-wide power surges and the disappearance of several minor supporting characters.
The Duffer Brothers – previously best known for writing a few episodes for Fox’s Wayward Pines – make no attempt to hide the type of era they are paying homage to here. The influence of filmmakers and authors like Spielberg, John Carpenter and Stephen King are all over this lovingly-crafted series. The Poltergeist is name-checked early on, The Thing is referenced on numerous occasions and the central trio of schools friends act like they’ve jumped straight out of an Amblin movie. They ride around town on bikes, play Dungeons and Dragons and talk via CB radios.
While this approach certainly has its charms, it causes problems when the call backs become less about setting a tone and more about lifting entire plotlines from its forebears. One subplot, which sees Elle hiding from her new friends’ parents, follows the structure of ET so closely it’s baffling that she doesn’t sprout an over-long index finger and start crowing about going home. And that’s not only time you will feel a sense of déjà vu. The likes of Alien and Sixteen Candles are all poached for story ideas with some scenes being lifted wholesale from the originals. It spoils the surprises too as the shocks and scares the Duffer Brothers spent so long constructing feel a tad too predictable to be effective.
The lack of originality impacts on the impressive cast, who all do fine work but are saddled with unimaginative characters. Harbour is your typical pill poppin’, chain smokin’, heavy drinkin’ cop with a troubled past. Matthew Modine plays a scheming Bad Guy who’s only role seems to be arriving on set moments after Elle and looking pretty darn annoyed about it. And Natalia Dyer’s Nancy is simply another innocent model student who just can’t resist the dimpled charms are her high school heartthrob. The only one who’s really allowed to shine here is Ryder, justifying her most high-profile role since that unfortunate payment mishap in a Fifth Avenue department store. As Will’s distraught, overwhelmed mother, Ryder wrings heartbreaking emotion out of every single seen in what feels like her most raw performance since Girl, Interrupted.
Stranger Things is still an engaging eight-episode watch, though, with plenty of dark mysteries, teen dramas and nostalgia-themed shenanigans to keep you hooked for the next instalment. The only drawback is that all its stranger things have happened before and if the Duffer Brothers want it to be more than just a fun but forgettable mystery thriller to while away the summer months, then they need really need to start thinking up their own ideas.