Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest attempt to usurp broadcast television for all your serialized needs, wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. The series is a hodgepodge of 1980s pop-culture mainstays, primarily Steven Spielberg’s Amblin output, Stephen King’s earlier work and Stand By Me. Spielberg gets most of the glory here, all told. Stranger Things is especially interested in training its Spielbergian cut-through-the-darkness-and-fog flashlight beams on E.T., Gremlins and The Goonies, with a dash of Poltergeist for good measure. It aims to pull some Tarantino alchemy by bending blatant homage into something bold and original. A noble goal to be sure, but not one the series quite achieves.
It’s 1983 in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana and we are introduced to a foursome of lovable nerds, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and lisping, front-toothless Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo, the standout). This motley crew isn’t terribly popular at school, but finds solace in each other’s company, whiling away hours with role-playing games in Mike’s basement and communicating via walkie-talkies. After a mysterious incident transpires at a clandestine government facility just outside of town (shades of King’s The Mist), Will vanishes one night after being pursued by a seemingly unearthly assailant. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes unhinged with grief and worry while gruff police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) leads the manhunt. Will’s three friends take it upon themselves to find their friend, but instead they find a strange young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) in the woods, with a shaved head, a haunted aura and a limited vocabulary. The boys quickly surmise that this girl, who calls herself Eleven, is mixed up in all of this and might be the key to finding Will.
Stranger Things is evoking many things, but E.T. is probably chief among its role models. Eleven essentially fills the same role as the alien in that film, standing as a strange, benevolent, otherworldly figure for them to befriend and hide out from their parents, while also protecting from the clutches of sinister government forces, headed up here by Matthew Modine. The series has the precise same aim as J.J. Abrams’ own ‘80s-set Amblin tribute Super 8. That film also had a nerdy group of kids in a small town contending with a runaway monster, shady military figures, a troubled chief of police and concerned parents in an adventure brazenly designed to harken back to the pop culture of the era in which it depicts. Stranger Things is more successful at this game than the muddled, forgettable Super 8 was, but not by enough. By miring itself in reverence in other works, it often doesn’t emerge as its own unique entity. Just because you tackle Spielberg don’t make you Spielberg.
The mythology of the series isn’t strong enough to elevate it beyond its inspirations. We learn that the government officials presiding over Hawkins Laboratories, headed up forebodingly by Modine’s spookily blank Dr. Brenner, have cracked interdimensional travel, harnessing Eleven’s psychic powers to break through to “the Upside Down,” a shadowy parallel universe that is home to the monster—who resembles a cross between a miniature Cloverfield monster and a Venus flytrap—who freely traverses both worlds. As the series digs deeper and deeper into the particulars of what’s going on, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing of what it’s doing is all that novel. Eleven’s gifts, the monster, the Upside Down, the way unseen forces seem to haunt Joyce’s house, it’s all too familiar, too lacking in fresh idiosyncrasy. By the time our heroes are visiting the other dimension or confronting its scaly occupant, we’re waiting for some spark of newness to ignite and it never quite does.
Where Stranger Things excels is in the details. It recreates the early 1980s in loving and painstaking detail, right down to the commercials and frozen food logos inherent to the era. The hairstyles and clothing are all period-accurate, cutting no corners the way that many ‘80s-set productions often do. And even though the series isn’t shy about letting then-contemporary references to pop culture fly, its allusions all feel organic, not winky in that Wedding Singer way. Its amazing synthwave score also calls to mind the John Carpenter films of the day. The manner in which Stranger Things opens a gateway to the strange and extraordinary dimension of 1983 is one of its biggest strengths.
Its other biggest strength lies with its cast. The five principal child actors are all engaging and authentic, and the burgeoning first-love relationship between Mike and Eleven carries with it some of that old Wonder Years sweetness. Ryder is the biggest name among the adult cast (apart from Modine, who never breaks through the barriers separating character from archetype), but her performance is so constantly locked into parental hysteria that it grows a bit wearying. However, the greatest player in Stranger Things has to be Harbour’s Hopper, a born protector with just enough of an angry, dangerous edge to keep him intriguing.
Stranger Things ends on an ambiguous note, essentially making plain the intentions for a second season. I can’t help but wonder if the series might work best as a one-off, even if its positive reception makes that impossible. There is little of its existing mythology that seems to warrant further exploration and it has basically squeezed every last drop of Spielberg Juice from its influences. It feels like it accomplished everything it set out to do, leaving little on the table for future use. As hung up on Steven Spielberg as it is, it’s worth noting that the maestro never made a second E.T. movie. Maybe take that fact as your inspiration.
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