Steven Spielberg and Winona Ryder have never made a movie together, but those two ’80s touchstones — or at least the fierce nostalgia they arouse — are brought together in Stranger Things, the new supernatural mystery-thriller that debuted on Netflix last Friday (July 15). The 1983-set eight-episode season is meant to be a time machine: Its allusions to E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, and countless other Reagan-era movies feel simultaneously adoring and calculated. When a group of middle-school boys pedal their way on the outskirts of their suburban town, helping an unearthly creature evade capture by the authorities, it’s almost surprising that their bikes don’t suddenly rise into the night’s sky.
So faithful is Stranger Things to its inspirations that the show prevails and falters in pretty much the same ways those early Spielberg movies did. The spooky atmospherics are effective while family-friendly and briskly paced, and the script’s dorky sense of humor keeps the darker elements from taking over. The unflattering costumes and the casting of child and teenage actors who look like performers from that generation — i.e., much more like regular kids than the polished Uncanny Valley dwellers we tend to see on the Disney Channel today — help create the sense of the paranormal sniffing around the normal. But the characters are underwritten, the contrivances aplenty, and the season padded by an hour or two. The first time that Ryder’s Joyce is convinced by a man that she’s crazy for thinking her missing son, Will, is trying to communicate with her through the electricity in her house, it’s painful. The third or fourth time she’s gaslit, it’s just irritating. (HOW HARD IS IT TO JUST BELIEVE WOMEN, PEOPLE?)
Like much of Spielberg’s work, Stranger Things doesn’t know what to do with women. Ryder is billed first here, but Joyce is largely a thankless role, and the character’s transformation from a weak single mom dependent on her older son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), to take care of the family to a mama bear who’ll risk her life to rescue her younger child from a monster is barely recognized, let alone developed. Similarly, the call to duty that small-town police chief Hopper (David Harbour) answers — the first one he’s cared to hear after the death of his young daughter to cancer — is mentioned but hardly dramatized.
That the adults make so little impression shouldn’t be surprising; Stranger Things is a preteen’s story. Gawky Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and his friends’ attempt to find Will on their own leads to their discovery of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a silent, buzz-cut waif whom they eventually learn is telekinetic. Mike hides El, as she’s renamed, in his house like she’s E.T., for what’s more alien to a boy than a girl? As they figure out that El is their way toward getting Will back, their too-adorable antics include packing rocks to shoot in their slingshots, i.e., their “wrist rockets,” at the faceless, bulletproof beast that drags his bleeding victims away to another dimension.
But the weakest of the story lines belong to Jonathan and Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who serves up exposition in between scenes from a by-the-numbers love triangle. Nancy’s complete lack of offense upon seeing Jonathan’s pictures of her topless through a window feels outrageously dated and is possibly the least realistic element of a tale involving monsters, superpowers, and alternate realities. Nancy and Jonathan team up to search for answers after her friend, Barb (Shannon Purser), also goes missing, and the government’s cover-up of Barb’s disappearance is at least as creepy as the monster itself. The officials also somehow pull a not-quite-right cadaver that looks like Will but definitely isn’t him from the quarry, because what ’80s homage would be complete without a gaping killer hole outside of town? But neither villain ultimately turns out to be all that compelling once we know more about them.
Created, written, and directed by the twin Duffer brothers, Stranger Things is a much better spectacle than it is a story. The random reversals in the characters’ motivations and the callback-heavy dialogue render certain scenes too artificial or cutesy. Its best moments are those that conjoin unnerving eeriness with fascinated discovery, as when Mike’s 3-year-old sister walks down a hallway as Christmas lights propel her way forward with strategic flashes, or when Joyce sits in a cabinet in her haunted house, simultaneously ecstatic and terrified that she can converse with her missing son through the giant tangle of Christmas lights that she can’t help hugging. It’s a moment that encapsulates the show’s conflicting desires: to be comforted and embraced by the ordinary, and to make contact with something beyond it.