Netflix’s Stranger Things spoiler-free review

Sci-fi horror Stranger Things provides a welcome dose of comforting nostalgia. Here's a spoiler-free review...

In one scene of Netflix’s 1980s-set sci-fi horror Stranger Things, a kid’s mum lets him stay home from school and as a treat, offers to drive him to the video store so he can pick out anything he wants, no matter how scary.

If your heart gave an involuntary lurch reading that, a yearning, nostalgic twinge for the comforts of VHS cassettes, nice mums and days off school, I suspect you’re going to love this series.

Stranger Things is essentially Netflix driving us all to the video store for armfuls of our favourite 80s films: Poltergeist. E.T. The Goonies. The Thing… If you worship at those same movie altars, you’re in for a treat.

The nostalgia is so enjoyable in fact, you may as well go the whole hog and build yourself a duvet den from which to watch it. Prepare snacks (the kids in the show are fans of Pez and Pringles, but whatever works for you), draw the curtains, get comfy and settle in. Be sure to stave off deep-vein thrombosis by walking to the fridge to restock after every couple of episodes, but other than that, enjoy an entertaining holiday from the real world. Lord knows we could all use one about now.

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Set in 1983 Indiana and telling the story of a boy’s mysterious disappearance, Stranger Things isn’t only perfect escapism from what’s going on outside but also a very decent show in its own right.

At only eight episodes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s well-paced with multiple, diverting plot threads that coalesce satisfyingly by the end. Resolution fans will be happy to know that there is a conclusion, while ongoing series fans will be just as happy to know that doors are left open for continuation if it’s a hit.

There’s no reason it shouldn’t be a hit. Stranger Things was obviously designed for broad appeal. Depending on your stomach for this stuff, the horror elements are creepily effective but never traumatising or gratuitous. Parents should be happy to watch it with older kids and teenagers.

Speaking of whom, the show’s young cast is one of its real assets. If you find bright-eyed, beaming Disney Channel kinder more unsettling than Freddy or Pinhead, you’re in safe territory here. The quartet of D&D-playing thirteen-year-olds at its heart is more Freaks And Geeks or The Goonies than iCarly. Their friendship is convincing and charming, layering comedy and pathos onto this spooky story. Though they all seem like real finds, Millie Bobby Brown is especially haunting as the enigmatic Elle, while Broadway star Gaten Matarazzo never fails to liven up a scene.

Winona Ryder and David Harbour lead the adult cast very capably, with some boo-hiss support from Matthew Modine as a rarely glimpsed villain. Playing the mother of the young boy who goes missing, the role requires that Ryder spends much of her time hysterical, but she sells it. More endearing are the glimpses of her character in calmer moments, joshing with her sons or offering maternal reassurance to a scared child, but the entire package works.

You could say the same of the show as a whole. It repeatedly achieves the right balance, familiar but capable of surprise, comforting but unnerving… and it doesn’t only borrow glory from past movies, but also has one or two bright ideas of its own.

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It’s so well-designed in fact, you might resent it as an act of cynically engineered nostalgia. That’s unlikely though, because of how winningly it’s all done. Clearly the product of deep fandom, Stranger Things wears its influences proudly on its vintage corduroy sleeve. Its creators Matt and Ross Duffer are film-making twins nourished on a diet of John Carpenter, Stephen King and 80s Amblin. Here, they tell an immersive sci-fi story with heart and non-ironic, old-fashioned commitment.

Put simply: what’s not to love?

Read our interview with Stranger Things executive producer and director Shawn Levy, here.