Stranger Things review: Netflix serves up potent nostalgia
Netflix has hit the nostalgia motherlode with its 1980s-set ‘Stranger Things’. Is this the triumph of tributes over reboots?
Silent running: Millie Brown in Stranger Things. Photograph: Netflix
“Authenticity” and “faithfulness” carry a lot of cachet , making it tricky for creatives who want to revisit past works or bring classics into the here and now.
In recent months, distaste for a Ghostbusters reboot took on a life of its own, ostensibly because many felt the original 1985 film risked being retroactively sullied by a cynical cash-in. (By this logic, the original film’s legacy should already have been sullied by the film’s execrable sequel, numerous tie-in comics, games and novels, and 100+ hours of mediocre cartoons, but none of those treasonous elements within the canon registered, since none featured female leads.)
Authenticity is important, particularly to a specific type of angry man for whom skyscraper-sized marshmallow monsters fall within suspension of disbelief, but a female-led cast forever seems intolerably fanciful. While the latest outing may not have been as good as that first film (few things ever have been), it is ironic that the nasty cabal of misogynerds who’ve spent the past year protesting the reboot will surely go down as the creepiest villains in the history of the franchise.
These thoughts of creepiness, authenticity, and nostalgic culture frequently recur while watching Netflix’s addictive chiller Stranger Things, a tale of 1980s horror set in sleepy American suburbia. A boy goes missing, causing his plucky pals to get on their bikes and take on the ominous government facility on the edge of town. Add to that a near-mute psychic child, haunted Christmas lights, and rumours of a horrible faceless creature roaming the nearby woods, and you have the heady brew of melted-down VHS tape that is Stranger Things.
The details that stand out starkly are not those of its complex plot or fussily assembled sets and props, but the perfect recreation of 1980s Americana; wood-panelled station wagons passing flat-lawned townhouses; intrepid young boys who find it easier to fight interdimensional snot monsters than talk to girls; paranoid chatter from people scared of the threat Russia’s nuclear arsenal poses to the planet, delivered by people spraying their giant, flammable hair with greenhouse gases by the gallon.
Oddly, Stranger Things isn’t based on any existing property. Rather, it’s a distillation of innumerable cultural touchstones, a grab-bag of cleverly observed archetypes that’s been melted down into concentrate form as a thick, dark soup of eerily potent nostalgia fuel. It’s clear that Stephen King and Steven Spielberg loom large over the show’s smart script and knowing tone, which mixes potboiler horror with well-observed character moments.
Both of these elements are greatly elevated by the acting, most particularly in the uncommonly fine performances from the children in the cast, most notably the lovably pugnacious Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and the mysterious Eleven (Millie Brown) who steals the show while hardly saying a word.
Elsewhere, there are note-perfect nods to John Carpenter, David Lynch, and generous dips into the Dungeons & Dragons mythos. All in all, there’s little here we haven’t seen before, but it’s a neat trick to combine all these things so well, and with a brio and verve that’s charming to the end. Even the show’s title sequence, with its Moroder/ Carpenter synths and backlit glowing text, reinforces the satisfying sense of minutiae being attended to.
In the end, Stranger Things succeeds because of how creatively derivative it’s prepared to be.
A third way
Between sacrilege and facsimile lies a third path, and down it walks another iconic property in Preacher, currently partway through its inaugural series on AMC in the US and Amazon Prime (which you will irritatingly need a VPN to access here).
Preacher is a prestige TV treatment of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s 1990s comic series of the same name. The series maintains the feel and tone of the comics, but has so far jettisoned all but the story’s most basic plot points.
That’s a fairly smart move. I always found the Preacher books a bit silly and self-important, and did wonder how its denim-clad rebels, with their multiple page diatribes against political correctness, and their habit of using moody cigarette drags as punctuation, would fit into a modern context without seeming unforgivably heavy handed.
Here, Dominic Cooper plays titular cleric Jesse Custer, a rugged man of God who attains special powers after being possessed by a mysterious celestial entity. He is accompanied by Ruth Negga’s Tulip, a dangerous love interest from his criminal past, and hedonistic Irish vampire Cassidy, played with scenery-chewing abandon by Joseph Gilgun.
While we’re on the subject of authenticity, of those three characters, the actors playing Texans are from London and Limerick respectively, while the supposed Dubliner is a Lancashire native with an Irish accent that might best be described as extravagantly migratory. Although he improves as the episodes progress, Gilgun wanders through several westerly brogues en route, at best managing a fun mongrel of Cork and Kerry, at worst giving up entirely when his tongue collapses some way east of the Irish sea.
Despite this, Gilgun’s performance is a highlight, and so much fun it’s actually hard to hold his errant lilt against him, particularly as the spectacular action scene that introduces his character is such a genuine treat.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who produced this adaptation with Sam Catlin of Breaking Bad, have taken a free-wheeling approach to the adaptation and Preacher is never afraid to deviate from its source.
Admittedly, some plot threads prove less riveting than others, and uneven pacing slows a few early episodes, but its compelling characters and bravura set-pieces are enough to keep you in the aisles. The show’s largely positive reception is perhaps proof that beloved cultural properties need not be treated as gospel, so long as fans are willing to put a little faith in the hands of their creators.