On Netflix right now you can watch E.T., Jurassic Park and its (first) sequel, among other Spielberg films. When you have finished with those, starting Friday, you can watch Stranger Things, a new series that is an homage to and pastiche of all things Spielberg—and a bulwark against a time when Netflix no longer has streaming rights to E.T. Created by the Duffer brothers, Stranger Things pays respect not just to Spielberg but to Star Wars, ’80s horror films, and Dungeons & Dragons. Its poster appears to include E.T.’s Elliott, a Jedi, and Indiana Jones, and the show itself boasts courageous nerds, mysterious monsters, hazmat suits, first love, single moms, the force, Spielbergian camera angles, and a Tron-like title sequence. As with J.J. Abrams’ ode to Spielberg, Super 8, Stranger Things is extremely watchable and a little empty, a paean to the Duffer brothers’ own youth masquerading as a compliment to a master.
Set in the middle-American town of Hawkins, Indiana, in November 1983, Stranger Things stars four boys, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), the ringleader; Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), the skeptic; Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), the goof; and Will (Noah Schnapp), the gentle one. Bullies plague the boys at school. The ghost of Vietnam and threat of the Cold War hang in the air. But theirs are still the endless days of childhood, halcyon weeks full of walkie-talkies, ham radios, rec rooms, bicycles, camaraderie, and 10-hour sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. After one such rousing game, Will encounters a dangerous, mysterious something connected to the Department of Energy, an enigmatic governmental organization quietly housed on the outskirts of Hawkins. He disappears. In the coming days another girl vanishes, a man commits suicide, and a nearly mute young girl, with a shorn head and superpowers, appears.
The boys find the girl, named Eleven—El for short—hide her from their parents and the authorities, and use her as a guide to finding Will, a quest that involves bickering, bully-conquering, first love, and a flying mini-Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, in a storyline that begins like Pretty in Pink and then becomes a monster hunt, Mike’s type-A older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) teams up with Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), whose creepy vibe and shaggy hair obscure his heart of gold. In a third storyline, Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), a hard-working single mom, begins to communicate with Will using a set of Christmas lights, building a wall of crazy in her house that works like a Ouija board. She joins forces with town Chief Hopper (David Harbour), the Han Solo/Indiana Jones of the tale, a former big city cop grieving his own loss by using cigarettes and alcohol to achieve the perfect dad bod.
The series skillfully weaves these storylines together while coming up with an explanation for all the sci-fi stuff that is more unique than “aliens.” The plot has a satisfying inevitability to it—not such high praise for a series aiming for originality, but just about the sweet spot for one set on familiarity. To its effective structure, Stranger Things tacks a number of rousing and foolproof familiarities from Spielberg and Star Wars, including eerie and wondrous twinkling lights, men in cars chasing boys on bicycles, and a young girl who is strong with the force. The show even makes decent use of Ryder, whose once uncanny precocity has lately turned into an unsettling fragility. Her role as a grief-stricken mother possibly going insane matches up with the out-of-sync nature of her post-shoplifting performances. It’s the character who seems off kilter here, not Ryder herself.
But Stranger Things’ purported hero, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), is both underdeveloped and overdetermined. As in the new Star Wars, Stranger Things has ostensibly put a girl at the center of its story, but El is a symbol, not a person. Like E.T., she barely speaks, is fascinated by television, hitches a ride on someone else’s bike, and loves a mass-market food product. (Eggos this time, not Reese’s). Like a Jedi, she can move things with her mind and is being tested by the dark side. Like a Holocaust survivor, she’s been the subject of medical tests and has a shorn head and a number tattooed on her arm—011. And yet despite all these associations, the show only uses her to shore up the plot and give Mike his first crush.
Nothing about El makes sense. Would her captors have been so cold, when they could have gotten her to do all she did—more even—with a little warmth? Couldn't they at least have given her a government-issue sweatsuit, instead of having her wear a hospital gown for years? El can hear people talking on the other side of the world, but she reveals to Mike that she doesn’t know what the word friend means. Running from a supernatural being and government agents, guilty, tired, stressed, and constantly bloody-nosed, El never seems more upset than when she asks Mike, after removing a wig the boys disguised her in, if she’s “still pretty?” Friend may be a mystery to her, but she groks the male gaze.
On its own terms, Stranger Things works pretty well. If you have an itch for a Spielbergian ’80s period piece with a dash of horror, consider it scratched. Still, there is something deeply solipsistic about those terms. Spielberg made period pieces—the Indiana Jones films are set in the ’30s and ’40s—but the movies with the most direct influence on Stranger Things, like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Spielberg-produced Batteries Not Included were set in the then–present day ’70s and ’80s. Spielberg captured something about growing up in that era—suburbia, bicycles, latchkey kids, distracted parents, an untrustworthy government but a hopeful universe—that is so potent and iconic it does seem, from our current vantage, as if he filmed nostalgia itself. But neither these movies nor Star Wars are period pieces, part of the reason they spoke so deeply to so many of the kids who grew up on them, presumably the Duffer brothers among them. Someone who really wanted to pay homage to Spielberg might consider taking his themes and tics and tropes and transporting them to the present, so young people watching could see themselves in the results and not the creators’ own youth. What are cellphones but the best walkie-talkies ever made?