With “Stranger Things” as the buzziest new show, and “Pete’s Dragon” gliding into theaters on the strongest reviews for a major studio release in months, 2016 could go down in the history books as the Summer of Spielberg — as long as you overlook the movie Steven Spielberg actually directed.
Both the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix series and David Lowery’s Disney remake are fueled by ’80s nostalgia, specifically the world captured as captured in 1982’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and 1985’s Spielberg-produced “The Goonies.” It’s a place of fractured families and corded phones, wood-paneled station wagons and well-meaning villains.
The vogue for Spielberg-esque entertainment is in some ways a simple matter of chickens coming home to roost: Lowery was born in 1980; the Duffer twins, Matt and Ross, in 1984. “E.T.” and its infinite lesser derivatives would have entered their consciousness before they gained the ability to distinguish one from the other. “Goonies” was a turning point for me — the moment I realized that movies could be lousy just because no one cared enough to make them good — but I don’t begrudge anyone retaining their fondness for the film, as long as they acquire an adult understanding of it along the way.
But it’s also because Spielberg’s old movies tap into a kind of goodness that present-day filmmakers find it difficult to depict — and present-day audiences find even harder to swallow — without putting it in quotation marks. Both the period setting and the overt Spielberg homages act as a buffer, and they also serve as a means of connecting us to a time when we, both individually and as a culture, believed in goodness, too. That sounds corny, of course, but movies can be, or at least have been, a safe place for us to set aside our hard-earned skepticism and have faith, at least for a little while.
There are moments in “Pete’s Dragon” straight out of the Spielberg playbook, including a fleeting gag where the dragon flies over a hospital and makes two EMTs drop the gurney they’re unloading from an ambulance. It goes by in a flash, just long enough for laughter to shade into shock but not quite enough to wonder what was wrong with that person on the gurney and if their injuries just got much worse. There’s the sense that children inhabit a secret world, that there are things only they can see, although adults may be granted passage if they can find it in themselves to believe.
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But there’s a sense, too, that Lowery and co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks learned from Spielberg’s missteps, notably the ending of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary leaves his family behind to voyage among the stars. Spielberg has said he’d never have shot it that way if he’d then had children of his own. Without giving away the ending of “Pete’s Dragon,” it feels like Lowery and Halbrooks considered that latter-day perspective — although whether that makes the movie stronger or just more on-message is open to debate.
“Pete’s Dragon” is set in the past, in part because the ability to snap a smartphone picture of the dragon would obliterate most of the plot, but “Stranger Things” inhabits the past with a fidelity verging on fetishism. Like Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” it could almost pass for a movie shot in the era in which it’s set, so fastidious is its simulacrum. It feels like the ’80s I remember, although at this point, it’s hard to say how much my own memories and Spielberg’s movies have merged. I’m not sure I remember much else from 1982, but I remember when and how I saw “E.T.,” in the balcony of a rural movie theater where we brought pillows to cushion its wooden seats.
Where Lowery interrogates nostalgia, with Robert Redford as an old man whose life has been fueled by the “magic” of a single encounter from his younger days, the Duffers soak in it, dropping homages like breadcrumbs and slathering on Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s John Carpenter–biting synthesizer score. The early scene where Winona Ryder’s harried single mom prepares breakfast for her kids could have been lifted right out of “E.T.,” as could the moment when a boy confronts a mysterious presence in his garden shed.
But I’d be surprised if the Duffers recently watched “E.T.,” which is a much stranger and less homogenous movie than the one we tend to remember. There’s no “Stranger Things” equivalent to the scene in which Elliot’s romantic longings for a female classmate are stoked by his psychic bond with an alien who happens upon a broadcast of John Ford’s “The Quiet Man.” “Stranger Things” contains nothing idiosyncratic or personal, just an agreeably slick repackaging of familiar tropes.
That’s evidently just fine with with Netflix’s subscribers: The company doesn’t release viewing data, but Vulture‘s Jen Chaney found the series has been tweeted about more than 2 million times since mid-July, which is one sign of a runaway hit. Sometimes scratching the right itch at the right time is enough.
And what about Spielberg the filmmaker? “Bridge of Spies” performed reasonably well both at home and abroad, and it won Mark Rylance an Oscar for his portrayal of a Russian spy, but it felt more respected than loved. “The BFG” got a lukewarm reception both from critics and at the box office.
You could say it’s a matter of younger artists beating a master at his own game, the way a new crop of athletes or musicians remind their elders how it’s done. From a new source, Spielbergian wonder is a welcome antidote to a summer of world-ending blockbusters; from Spielberg himself, it sounds like grandpa telling that story about the old days again. (Even some of the positive notices received by “Bridge of Spies'” tagged it with the fondly condescending epithet “dad movie.”)
Still, grandpa has some new tricks up his sleeve. Under the guise of a love letter to the Constitution and due process, “Bridge of Spies” advances a theory that being American is not a matter of where you were born but what you believe, a potent rebuttal of nativist sentiment that prefigures Khizr Khan’s rebuke of Donald Trump. “The BFG” makes uniquely empathetic use of motion-capture technology, and it climaxes with an affectionate burlesque of military multilateralism. Spielberg himself has since evolved, as artists do, but if he won’t make Spielberg movies, there’s a long line of people willing to do it for him.