If an homage is done right, it doesn’t feel like a nostalgia-inducing cash-grab. It transports you back in time, making you feel as though you are watching a lost treasure from another era.
Stranger Things is a Netflix-original series, but it feels like the kind of spooky fantasy you’d find on a dusty shelf in the back of a mom-and-pop video store.
Set in Hawkins, Indiana circa 1983, the show immediately wraps you in a warm blanket of nostalgia with an opening sequence that beautifully mirrors the first few scenes of E.T. Complete with dorky kids, bikes and a foggy forest, the set-up radiates with Spielbergian warmth and suspense.
The first episode starts with a group of preteen boys geeking out in a basement over an intense game of Dungeons & Dragons. Then, on his bike ride home, one of the boys stumbles upon something strange in the woods — perhaps a creature from another world. The next day, little Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is nowhere to be found. At the same time that Will goes missing, a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers (Millie Bobby Brown) escapes from the dark and ominous Hawkins National Laboratory — a Department of Energy facility on the outskirts of the small town.
In addition to his D&D buddies, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and brother (Charlie Heaton) join a search party led by the charmingly crotchety police chief (David Harbour). While they search for Will, a doctor from the Hawkins lab (Matthew Modine) leads the hunt for the strange girl with special powers. It’s an eccentric, eclectic ensemble — one of the best casts in recent memory.
Much like the Spielberg films to which it pays homage, this is a drama in which every character and performance is colorful and engaging. Harbour in particular is a joy to watch as the skeptical policeman. “This isn’t some Lord of the Rings book,” he yells at the young boys as they talk about fantasy lore in connection with the case of Will’s disappearance. With his grumpy, realist attitude, Harbour’s character provides an amusing contrast to the younger characters’ wide-eyed sense of wonder. However, all of the characters eventually find themselves in the same boat, debating whether forces beyond Earth are responsible for the mysteries afoot in the quiet town of Hawkins. Mystical mayhem slowly interrupts their mundane lives.
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If you think that’s intriguing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Over the course of eight episodes, this series dives deeper and deeper into pure, supernatural bliss. A gooey creature runs amok, a boy communicates through electricity, a parallel dimension comes into play and so much more. It’s an equally poignant and pulpy yarn about otherworldly elements in the midst of ordinary American life. Like E.T., Poltergeist and the work of Stephen King, Stranger Things focuses on human drama first and foremost. In other words, it’s a horror story with its heart intact. Everything involving Ryder’s character and the search for her son is tender and touching. Given her popularity in the ’80s, it’s charming to see Ryder playing a mother from that era. This is her best performance in quite some time. She makes the mother’s grief and anxiety our own.
Matt and Ross Duffer — the masterminds behind the show — are relative newcomers, with just a few credits to their name (Hidden, a few episodes of Fox’s Wayward Pines). Stranger Things buzzes with a kind of youthful exuberance, as if it were made by giddy film school students with dreams of creating iconic movie monsters. It exudes an endearing sense of innocence and wonder … unlike the other major work of science fiction you could see this weekend, Star Trek Beyond, which feels like a tired phone-in job. Stranger Things seems to be nothing short of a true labor of love, right down to the moody music — a sinister synth score that smacks of John Carpenter’s eerie themes from the late ’70s, early ’80s. The Duffer Brothers are completely committed to immersing viewers in that time period. The younger characters’ rooms are even decorated with movie posters from the era. This show is a great slice of history for young viewers — a portal into the past and a gateway to so many classic novels and movies.
As a movie buff, I wouldn’t want to steer you too far away from the theater, but if you’re a film fanatic, you owe it to yourself to curl up on the couch and watch Stranger Things this week. It’s both a walk down memory lane and a trip to an exciting new world. This is the kind of fantasy that will make you feel like a kid again. So, hook up Netflix in your basement, gather your buddies and behold this strange and magical piece of television.
(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by Middle Coast Film Fest [middlecoastfest.com]. Middle Coast Film Fest had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)