Stranger Things is not a reboot, remake, or adaptation. Instead of directly adapting beloved properties, it harnesses the language of nostalgia and callbacks to reel viewers into a new story. If you aren’t hooked by the opening scene cribbed from E.T., you’ll probably be sucked in by the time you see Winona Ryder or hear Toto’s “Africa.” A show with this long a list of influences might read as a parody if it wasn’t one of the summer’s most engrossing, well-acted programs.
Much like E.T., Stranger Things begins when Will Byers (Noah Schnapps) discovers something hiding in his family’s tool shed. But the creature he finds is not a friendly extraterrestrial: we get a glimpse of something monstrous, and suddenly Will is gone. As his frantic mother (Ryder) raises the alarm, another child appears in the woods. Identifying herself only as “Eleven”, she has escaped from a lab and has telekinetic powers.
There are more E.T. connections to be made (Eleven’s passion for Eggo waffles recalls E.T.’s for Reese’s Pieces), but with each scene it becomes clear that Stranger Things is a love letter not only to the work of Spielberg, but horror masters John Carpenter and Stephen King as well. Will is in danger, if he somehow survived the monster’s initial attack, and the scientists Eleven escaped from look like they’ll do anything to get her back.
This mix of earnest nostalgia and sci-fi horror prevents Stranger Things from being merely a big-budget fan film. You can feel series creators The Duffer Brothers’ longing for the mid-eighties, and also the underlying sense that they are just young enough to have missed living through the period they’re recreating (E.T. was released in 1982, they were born in 1984). The resulting sensibility is one common among culturally literate kids. I feel it when I watch Will’s friends sneak out to save him, or Nancy lie to go to a party with her new, popular friends. As one of the last few latchkey kids, I identify with these under-supervised adventurers, but have a twinge of regret for using that freedom to watch sci-fi marathons instead of to explore.
If you also caught those marathons, or have even a passing familiarity with Spielberg, avoiding spoilers is probably a pointless exercise. Stranger Things’ familiarity means most twists are telegraphed from the first episode, but it does sometimes take a much darker turn than standard ‘80s family fare. While the show’s heroes and their struggles are familiar, the villains are not. The government scientists in E.T. didn’t understand the creature but ultimately wanted to help; the scientists of Hawkins, Indiana care very little about their test subjects or the civilians caught in the crossfire. And then there is the creature who has taken Will: as unseen and terrifying as the shark in Jaws, but it can’t be escaped by simply getting out of the water.
Stranger Things requires its very young cast to do much of the heavy lifting in this story, and they pull it off impressively. Schnapps is not given much screen time, but his Goonies-esque squad (Gaten Mattazarro, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin) are charming as hell. It’s Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), though, who is the breakout star. With only a handful of dialogue, she shows a calm and depth that would be impressive for even a much older actress. Ryder doesn’t have much to do until late in the season, but if you’re a Ryder devotee, you’ll be happy just to see her in a leading role (even if she doesn’t blink for the duration of the season).
Stranger Things, while technically an original show, serves up everything that makes a reboot great: a reminder of the magic of a past experience and a reveal of something sinister hidden beneath those memories.
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