Netflix's 'Stranger Things' basks in '80s nostalgia, but doesn't drown in it
Nostalgia rules the pop culture universe. No old property is too obscure or lame to be considered for a revival or reboot these days (I eagerly await announcement of the Just One of the Guys Cinematic Universe). Belated additions to the Star Wars and Rocky franchises were adored even though (or because) they were beat-for-beat remakes of the original films. The hot new app that has all your friends braving the sun in order to catch Charmanders and Zubats is based on a cartoon from the '90s.
Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, and lord knows I get excited when a Community or Simpsons or BoJack Horseman episode alludes to some beloved property from my childhood. But there's a danger in building a movie or TV show around nostalgia: you can soak so deeply in your love for works of the past that the whole project drowns in it.
Quentin Tarantino has enough of a specific narrative and visual style so that his best films feel like his even when they wear their influences on their sleeves. And J.J. Abrams was able to make The Force Awakens feel like its own thing, even as it was moving through all the major plot points of A New Hope. On the other hand, Abrams' affectionate Steven Spielberg tribute Super 8 was technically impressive but mostly left me wishing I had chosen to rewatch E.T. or Close Encounters instead.
Netflix's newest drama, Stranger Things (its first season debuts on Friday; I've seen all eight episodes), is even less shy about bowing down at the altar of Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter. Set in suburban Indiana in 1983, it's heavy on synth music, kids riding around on dirt bikes, shady government agents in hazmat suits, a monster that usually skitters around the edge of the frame rather than appearing in full, and all the other tropes you might expect from the suspense and horror classics of the late '70s and early '80s. Barely a scene goes by without some kind of echo of E.T. or Jaws or The Body (the King story that became Stand By Me), to name just three, and at times the characters just come right out and cop to the story's inspirations: in trying to explain one bit of supernatural information to a pair of skeptics, a woman asks them, "You read any Stephen King?"
But the series, created and primarily directed by filmmaking brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (Wayward Pines) doesn't feel like a hollow nostalgia exercise. It's not Super 16. Over the course of the eight hours, the story and characters take on enough life of their own so that the references don't feel self-indulgent, and so that the series can be appreciated even if you don't know the plot of E.T. or the title font of Stephen King's early novels (a huge influence on the show's own opening credits) by heart.
The story begins with a quartet of middle-school friends — leader Mike (Finn Wolfhard), talkative Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), skeptic Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and honest Will (Noah Schnapp) — whose lives revolve around marathon Dungeons & Dragons games, science fiction, the AV club, and avoiding the local bullies. Then Will goes missing under mysterious circumstances that lead back to a nearby government research lab run by Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) and a crewcut girl called Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who has amazing powers and a very limited understanding of the world the boys know by heart. Along the way, there are parallel investigations run by Mike and Will's older siblings Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and by Will's mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Chief Hopper (David Harbour), the town's burnt-out top cop.
The references are clear but usually with a small twist: Eleven (El, for short) is essentially E.T., hidden in Mike's basement and closet, and developing a hankering for a specific kind of food (Eggos instead of Reese's Pieces), but Dr. Brenner has put her through a lot of awful things, and she's much more dangerous than she might seem at first glance. Both the kids and teens deal with nasty bullies straight out of It or a John Hughes movie, but one of them turns out to be less cartoonishly villainous than he seems at first. Along the way, it becomes a salute not only to the pop culture of the era, but the many ways the world has changed over the last 30-odd years: Hopper has a beer gut and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lip, the kids buy weapons for their monster hunt at an Army surplus store with no one raising an eyebrow, and a key part of the investigation involves a librarian showing Hopper and Joyce a card catalog for newspaper archives on microfiche.
Eight hours turns out to be the perfect length, both for this kind of elaborate pastiche and for the Netflix "treat the season as one long movie" approach. The story moves briskly, with barely any of the repetition or idiot plot that a lot of other streaming series resort to while trying to fill 13 hours. There's a stretch where Joyce (like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters) appears to the outside world to be losing her mind in her attempts to find Will; it's easy to imagine that dragging on forever in a standard-length Netflix show, but here the Duffers get all they can out of the idea and then go on to something else. And while the story probably could have just been told at feature film-length, the extra hours allow most of the characters(*) to become three-dimensional in a way that Abrams wasn't really able to do in the otherwise similar Super 8. Dustin, introduced as colorful comic relief at first (he has a condition where his adult teeth haven't come in yet, creating a Daffy Duck-esque lisp), turns out to be tougher and more resourceful than he seems at first, and the story of why Chief Hopper becomes so invested in the search for Will creates huge emotional power by the end.
(*) I do feel bad for Mad Men alum Cara Buono, stuck playing Mike and Nancy's mom, who remains exactly as oblivious as the plot and the traditions of the genre need her to be.
The presence of Ryder is symbolic of why the whole thing works. The Duffers cast her because she's most iconic for her roles in the '80s (if Stranger Things were actually being made in 1983, she'd be the right age to play Eleven), but also because she's a talented actress who has (after a quiet period largely playing supporting roles in small movies) really come into herself as an adult performer. She was a revelation as Oscar Isaac's city council ally in Show Me a Hero, and she's terrific here.
The market for nostalgia is so robust that Stranger Things probably could have gotten away with parading a bunch of '80s actors and references across the screen with minimal effort and creativity beyond that. But the series ultimately succeeds as something more than just a tribute act, even if it'll surely help if you're the type who gets excited when Dustin asks Eleven if she can use her powers to make Mike's toy Millennium Falcon fly like the genuine article.