"Friends don't lie."
A Cultural phenomenon is a tough sell for me. When everyone is talking about a show or a movie, my gut response is to run in the opposite direction. Part of it has to do with not wanting my opinions of a work colored by outsiders, but it's also to do with the incessant water cooler chit-chat that inevitably leads to massive spoilers. From Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, I've purposely kept my distance so I can enjoy things on my own terms. When people started chattering about Netflix's ode to 80s horror movies, Stranger Things, I put my guard up preparing to wait months to start in on it. Interestingly enough, outside of how great it was or comparisons to various movies I heard nothing! That got me interested. From the get-go, the Duffer Brother's Stranger Things won me over. It isn't perfect, but it's damn entertaining and thankfully holds up to repeat viewings.
In the sleepy Indiana town of Hawkins, life is normal. Parents go to work. Kids go to school. Until one night a child goes missing. After playing a long round of D&D with his pals Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and his older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) can't find him. Even the town's chief of police Hopper (David Harbour) is at a loss, as the clues they do have fail to add up. When Mike, Lucas, and Dustin discover a mysterious girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in the rain only wearing a t-shirt, the mystery only thickens. As Eleven may prove to hold the clue to Will's disappearance, a shadowy government agency lead by Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) arrives on the scene.
As I'm a person who is reluctant to provide any spoiler material lest someone reading hasn't seen it, I'm actually having a tough time talking about Stranger Things. There is a lot packed into this show from numerous movie references like The Thing and The Evil Dead to bits and pieces carved from Stephen King books, there is a lot of 80s nostalgia at work here. If the Duffer Brothers had slipped up in the slightest, if all of the cultural references hadn't worked, the show would have been just a flimsy piece of nostalgic kitsch that would have been quickly forgotten. Thankfully, Stranger Things works.
If there is an easy comparison to make, one could draw a pretty solid line right to J.J. Abrams' ode to Steven Spielberg 80s movies, Super 8. There are a number of similarities between these two works with a cast of young child actors in the leads to shadowy government agencies to a creature that likes to keep to the dark. While I do love Super 8, even I would admit that it goes too hard to ape the Spielberg "Wonder Gaze" and cast the film unrealistically in the late 70s early 80s. Stranger Things seems to handle things more naturally. Perhaps because of the extended runtime with 8 episodes to work with, this show doesn't make it a point to constantly remind people of the era it takes place in. The world feels more natural to the point that when you see an army of school kids hauling Trapper Keepers you don't really question it.
Add to that you have an engaging story with plenty of mystery surrounding it. With their best friend missing, it's up to a group of kids and their new gal pal with psychic powers to rescue him. If this dynamic doesn't toss you back into thinking about The Goonies or its numerous clones I don't know what will. Episode by episode, another piece of the puzzle falls into place. You get to know more about the shadowy agency, Eleven, the demon monster from the Upside down world, and you also get to know more about the cast of characters and what makes them tick.
To that end, I have to shout out the great cast and their work on this show. While Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo are great and they play perfect best friends, they're not the real standouts of the show. For my money, it's Winona Ryder, Millie Bobbie Brown, and David Harbour who make this show great. With each episode, Ryder's Joyce gradually slips towards desperation and her sanity is strained. It's a true comeback performance for Ryder who hasn't done a whole lot since the mid-90s. Then we have Millie Bobbie Brown's Eleven. For a twelve-year-old kid, she's got a hell of a lot of range. She may not say much, but she doesn't have to, her emotions and expressions make up for any dialogue shortfalls. then we have David Harbour's Hopper. When we first meet him we see a broken jaded man who really doesn't have much of a reason to get up in the morning and pin on his badge and do his job. With each episode we get to know more about him, why he is the way he is, and why this case of a missing child may be a chance at regaining a piece of himself that was lost long ago.
As much as I did love Stranger Things, I won't go out on the limb and state definitively that it is a perfect show. Like a lot of long-form television stories, it does suffer some middle ground bloat. Episodes Four and Five, in particular, feel as if they could have been trimmed down and combined. Even then it wouldn't be too difficult to cut back a few scenes and sequences and bring the episode count from eight down to six. But that really is only a slight grievance. If the only real criticism I can muster without nitpicking the show to hell and back is that it's a little slow in the middle, that's not really much of a complaint at all. As Season Two looms on the horizon, I'm happy to see that this First Season holds up so well. Even if this is the only good season of this show's run, this first outing feels complete enough that it could be enjoyed again and again without feeling the need for more. If this had been a one and done miniseries event, I would have been perfectly happy. Now with more episodes on the way, we have the potential for even more thrills, chills, and 80s nostalgia.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD
Who doesn't love a sudden and unannounced double dip? This release 4K UHD release of Stranger Things was so mishandled that not every store got their inventory shipment at the same time. While the Target website indicates this edition was released on November 15th, in Chicago, none of the stores in my area got their stock until November 25th. So if your local store doesn't appear to have it, make sure to ask someone because chances are pretty good it's sitting in the back.
Stranger Things makes its 4K Ultra HD debut in yet another stealth release from Netflix in a Target Exclusive oversized VHS-styled package. This four-disc Blu-ray and DVD set features new artwork with a white trimmed simulated distressed look similar to the previously released Blu-ray and DVD set. The "tape" box features black labels on the top and side with new "Be Kind Rewind" stickers as well as a ".50 Cent Fine" sticker if you fail to rewind your tapes. It's a fun touch that echoes the old rental standards. All eight episodes are spaced across two BD-66 discs. The first disc loads to the same previews for Stranger Things 2 and Marvel's The Defenders as the previous Blu-ray release, however, this time you can actually skip these previews and don't have to sit through them each time you load up the disc. Each disc has a static image main menu with traditional navigation features. Also included is a poster but instead of a custom painting of the Demogorgon, it's just the basic poster art for Stranger Things 2.
Well, this is a bit of an oddity in the world of 4K Ultra HD releases. When you put the disc in your player, a "HDR" notification pops up during the FBI warning, however, once the preview trailers start in standard SDR 1080p and the main menus pull up, that HDR setting disappears. As this show was finished in native 4K, there is a notable improvement in detail clarity as well as color. While this release may not enjoy the full benefits that HDR10 or even Dolby Vision would provide, there is an improvement as this UHD presentation enjoys 10bit color over Blu-ray's 8bit color. So there is an improvement in the colors, just not one that folks looking to enjoy. That said, this first season isn't presented on Netflix's 4K streaming with any kind of HDR color timing, so this presentation is authentic to the one currently available - and I dare say a better one.
Right away you can clearly see the differences between the Blu-ray, Netflix's 4K Streaming, and the UHD discs with the UHD discs being the obvious winner in my book. Even with 4K streaming on Netflix, the show looked a little too processed with some scenes looking like the TruMotion setting or other abhorrent smoothing function had been applied. That anomaly doesn't rear its ugly face around this disc. Details are rich throughout allowing you to see and appreciate the impeccable production design work that went into this show. Facial features and clothing also receive a notable improvement. If you ever want to count Hopper's individual beard hairs... well now you can! After doing some disc swapping for comparison sake, this 4K UHD release is the clear winner - even if it doesn't come with the hopped for HDR contrast & color upgrade.
While I would say that the video presentation was greatly improved for this release, I can't say the same about the audio. Sadly, in point of fact, the opposite is true. In what can only be a guess, Netflix decided to downgrade the audio from the Blu-ray's solid Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix to a bit of an anemic Dolby Digital 5.1.
Was this done to maintain image quality given the four episodes per disc approach? I can't say, but this isn't immediately a terrible loss -- the show never really had a particular "wow" presence -- but you can notice the differences. Dialogue is still crystal clear without any interference and the show's iconic score still registers the low LFE tones that only a good synth score can provide. What I see as a loss here is the sense of atmosphere. In my previous review, I pined for a true Atmos mix, but still joyfully accepted the Dolby TrueHD mix. This Dolby Digital 5.1 mix just sounds flat by comparison. While there is plenty of surround activity when it counts, the scenes at the police station when we see Hopper arrive at work or at the school with the kids shuffling about in their lockers lack the subtleties of the TrueHD mix. It sounds a bit hollow by comparison. After doing a few disc swaps to compare, it is admittedly a tough difference to notice, but it's there if you listen for it. Overall this is still a solid audio mix, it gets the job done, but not as cleanly as the audio provided for the Blu-rays so I have downgraded the score from 4/5 to 3.5/5.
Still no bonus features have been included.
Another day, another double dip. What are you gonna do? Like many folks out there, I was convinced that the Blu-ray edition that was released in time for Halloween would be the one and only time we'd see Stranger Things on physical media. Well, I stuck my foot in my own mouth as Netflix and Target decided to slip one past the fans with yet another stealth release of this first season on 4K UHD. Why they didn't tell anyone this was coming is anyone's guess. A heads up to fans would have been nice just to prevent double-dip fatigue. Adding insult to injury, the 4K UHD may look better than the Blu-ray, but it doesn't sound better as the powers that be decided to sacrifice audio fidelity in favor of picture quality. At least the packaging artwork is different, so I guess that's something. I'm honestly conflicted about this release. I'll call it recommended for argument's sake, but with some serious reservations. It's a solid release on its own merits, and I enjoy having the show now in 4K, but if you already bought the standard Blu-ray release, improved image quality may not be enough justification to purchase this first season of Stranger Things all over again. If you didn't pick up that first release, well you're in luck and the choice is that much easier for you. I dearly hope that Netflix (and Target for that matter) pay attention to fans' displeasure at this sort of stunt releasing when considering Stranger Things 2 for Blu-ray and UHD. We absolutely want this series and other shows only found on streaming to be released on physical media, but don't stretch our goodwill. That said, I hope to see Stranger Things 2 with LaserDisc packaging in the old DiscoVision stylings.