During the buildup to “Stranger Things,” the Indiana-set Netflix original series was a bit hard to describe. Sure, it was about a group of kids searching for their missing friend who disappeared under suspicious circumstances, but what kind of show was it? “Was it a horror show? A kids’ show? A drama with kids but made for adults? Sci-fi that looked like a drama? Could my kids watch it? But would I like it? Wait — is that Winona Ryder?”
Well, after watching just a few minutes of The Duffer Brothers’ (as Matt and Ross Duffer dub themselves) eight-episode original series, it’s immediately clear what it is: It’s the PG-rated ’80s movie that would land a PG-13 today — your “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” and, yes, “E.T.” and 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
The latter two examples are what the brothers draw from specifically (those and, oddly enough, “Halloween”/John Carpenter’s expansive early oeuvre) in creating an ’80s set homage to the decade, complete with bad haircuts, an electronic synth-driven score and Reagan-era paranoia. And while all these elements should please cinephiles, “Stranger Things” never establishes itself as anything more than a reminder of what was, instead of a celebration of past and present.
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“Stranger Things” kicks off like an “X-Files” episode (which works as ominous and accurate foreshadowing in that “The X-Files” was a ’90s show inspired by ’70s TV, like “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” but not so much “of the ’80s): a scientist tries to escape a dimly lit, eerily quiet underground bunker only to be attacked by an unseen beast. But rather than cutting to Mulder and Scully inappropriately flirting in a cohabited basement with agonizingly repressed sexual innuendos, “Stranger Things” shifts to four young boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in, yes, a basement. But they’re screaming about being attacked by a Demogorgon rather than “prepping” to “work” on a “case.”
From there, one of the friends disappears, the town goes into a (rather muted) panic and strange things start happening. And yes, to the town, they’re pretty strange: inexplicable disappearances; lights blinking in communication; a mysterious CIA blacksite. But to viewers, they should be fairly familiar, if not outright predictable.
It’s not that the major events of “Stranger Things” are executed poorly, either. The Duffer Brothers and the rest of the crew — including director/producer Shawn Levy — clearly have a passion for the past and recreate it with apt flair. The production design utilizes quite a bit of practical effects, adding to the ’80s aesthetic, and the CGI elements are an apt blend of convincing and outlandish. Eight episodes proves to be the perfect length, too, as the series cruises along at a steady clip without any signs of struggle.
Yet the end result — we’ve seen all eight episodes — lacks a lasting impact. By checking all the boxes in appeasing its predecessors, the new series fails to surprise, even with its last minute twists. That being said, “Stranger Things” could become the nostalgic favorite of a new generation. Children uninformed of the past may be stricken by the scares and won over by the characters (whose development is a tad rushed, but the group remains empathetic). Because they haven’t seen “Close Encounters” or, hopefully, “Halloween,” they may cling to this as the years pass, especially if it gets picked up for more seasons.
For adults, though, “Stranger Things” ends up feeling more like an imitation of a modern movie paying homage to the ’80s than an authentic ode to ’80s films. Basically, it felt like an homage to “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams’ homage to Spielberg; an homage to an homage. And that’s fine — even when “Stranger Things” pulls from more recent Spielberg, namely “Minority Report” — but when this much raw talent clearly has this much love for a project (especially a project reliant on child actors who, it turns out, can actually act) it stings all the more when the result is only passing entertainment, and not something more.
The films “Stranger Things” honors transcended their genres. This seems happy to propitiate them.