I started the first episode of Netflix's new original series Stranger Things at 2AM. I turned off all the lights to create a perfect atmosphere for a bone-chilling horror show.
I’ll just watch an episode or two, then go to bed, I thought.
Before long — or so it seemed — the sun was coming up, and I covered my window with a blanket to block out the light so I could continue watching until 7AM. (It was not my proudest moment. The last time I did something like that, I’d been watching Twin Peaks.)
I finished the entire first season in a 24-hour time period, and I want to watch it again. Moody intro music played on an Oberheim synth, paired with a font that was oft-used on Stephen King covers, had me hooked from the opening sequence. Stranger Things sets a very particular and ominous tone that is carried out flawlessly. It is heavily influenced by '80s films, such as The Thing, Alien, Goonies, Poltergeist, Stephen King’s It, Jaws, E.T., Stand by Me, Rambo, and Pretty in Pink.
In keeping with a sci-fi genre tradition, Stranger Things presents us with four badass female leads, then shrugs its shoulders like this is no big deal or at all unusual. The BAMF du jour is a young girl called Eleven, played by newcomer Millie Bobby Brown. Eleven is something of a Mathilda-meets-Akira-meets-Furiosa prodigy with telekinetic powers. According to Brown, directors Matt and Ross Duffer assigned her '80s films for homework and told her “to have the mind-frame of Charlize Theron in Mad Max." She delivers, in spite of her minimal dialogue, with an ability that belies her twelve years.
Winona Ryder hits with swift punches to the gut as a grief-stricken single mother unraveling the mystery of her son Will’s disappearance. In her role as Joyce Byers, Ryder reels through despair, anger, and hope, all while taking the viewer along for the ride. I can’t tell you how many times she had me on the verge of tears. But this is Winona Ryder we’re talking about, a professional in the horror, thriller, and sci-fi genre, so I’d expect nothing less.
Natalia Dyer is Nancy Wheeler, the straight-A student who tries to become the cool girl, then realizes her true potential for badassery as she becomes involved in a mission to rescue Will Byers. Much like Dyer herself, who previously starred in I Believe in Unicorns, Nancy turns a complete 180. She goes from chemistry class queen to certified monster hunter shopping for bear traps at an Army Surplus store.
Cara Buono shows a more subtle kind of courage as Nancy’s mother, Karen Wheeler. Though her character doesn’t become fully privy to the mystery haunting their small town, I couldn’t help but relate to her as she reached out to her children. Trapped in a loveless marriage in suburbia, Karen Wheeler might have been one of the most realistic characters, and for that reason, her strength could be overlooked by some. I’d like to think this was intentional on the part of the writers.
I was drawn in by the style, but riveted by the writing and performances; every character is important, and nearly every character experiences personal growth. And that rare treat, though one we’ve come to expect from classic sci-fi: badass ladies who are treated with such dignity and humanity that they make you question the usefulness of the expression “female” lead.
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Myra Pearson is a freelance writer and poet from Blacksburg, Virginia. She resides in Seoul, Korea, where she teaches at Duksung Woman's University. he is the editor of Period Magazine, a non-profit zine for women in the literary and visual arts. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and her first book of poems is forthcoming. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.