The biggest complaint I hear from movie and television fans is that Hollywood is out of original ideas. With reboots, revivals and remakes announced on a regular basis to capitalize on nostalgia, it can definitely seem like that's the case. But Netflix's new series, Stranger Things, manages something different by perfectly capturing the nostalgia of the 80s in an original and lovingly crafted tribute.
Created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (Wayward Pines), Stranger Things takes place in a sleepy Indiana town where the most exciting thing to happen in recent years was an owl attacking the head of a woman whose hair is mistaken for a nest. But when a little boy goes missing late one night under mysterious circumstances and a little girl shows up with supernatural powers, the mundane little town is thrown into the world of the creepy and fantastic.
The show's clearest influences are drawn from Steven Spielberg's early films, Stephen King's books, and John Carpenter. You have the tight-nit group of precocious kids (The Goonies) about to embark on an adventure to save their friend, a little girl with mysterious supernatural powers (Firestarter), and a good old fashioned monster (The Thing). Even the adult casting is an 80s kid's dream with the glorious return of Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice) as the grief-stricken mother, teetering on the brink of madness, determined to get her son back, and Matthew Modine (Vision Quest) as the menacing government scientist. All of these elements are beautifully blended together in a series that transports the audience to 1983 without the blatant pandering Hollywood seems so fond of today.
From the opening scene, you're immediately pulled in as we see a nearby secret government installation suddenly erupt in chaos when one of their experiments seemingly turns on them, an unseen monster snatches up a scientist, and a little girl with a shaved head escapes into the night. And when we're introduced to the core group of friends, it's during a game of Dungeons & Dragons as the four boys are confronting a fictional monster of their own.
The child performances in Stranger Things are surprisingly nuanced and reminiscent of the stellar performances by River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell in the classic film, Stand By Me. Led by Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, the kids manage to hold their own onscreen without ever drifting into the ridiculous. Your heart will break as they explore friendship, love, self-discovery, and loss for the first time against a backdrop of government conspiracies and things that go bump in the night.
The nostalgia can almost be distracting at times, particularly if you grew up in the 80s and early 90s. Your mind flip-flops between images of your favorite films like when the boys all hop on their bikes at night and flip on their headlights, you'll immediately flashback to images of Spielberg's E.T, or during a poolside party scene with a group of teens, you might be reminded of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and as the monster is stalking its prey, you'll remember Ripley being hunted by the alien. And of course, just existing in that timeframe will make you smile at the sight of the kids in school clutching their Trapper Keepers, the Evil Dead movie poster on Jonathan's wall, the fluffy, teased out hairstyles, high-waisted jeans and plastic-framed glasses that covered half your face. You'll find yourself identifying with the characters as you realize that you were Barb, Mike, Nancy, or Jonathan in the 80s. And you'll remember what it was like when you heard The Clash for the first time or when you just knew that box under the Christmas tree was an Atari 2600 because your best friend was getting one and you'd gone to Sears a million times, looked at the box and tested the weight.
While Stranger Things is so steeped in nostalgia that even the title sequence will have you convinced you're watching a movie from the era, the show is also an outstanding supernatural series that is easy to binge and watch over and over. Its creepiness will tickle your brain in all the right places and remind you of why flickering lights freak you out and you should never go outside alone at night.
In all honesty, I had no intention of watching Stranger Things. I was only vaguely aware of the premise and hadn't even seen the full trailer. But on a whim, I decided to watch and it proved to be the best lost Saturday I've spent in a very long time.
All eight episodes are currently streaming on Netflix.