I like the music of The Beatles and Jay-Z, but I would not consider myself a “huge fan” of either outfit in the sense that I appreciate and occasionally listen to their music but I don’t own their entire album collections. What I do love, however, is Danger Mouse’s 2004 Grey Album, which remixes The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album and transforms those songs into something fresh and unique. Danger Mouse took the music of two great artists and created the perfect blend of hip-hop and melody.
Netflix’s new series, Stranger Things is The Grey Album of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter’s early career (and several other 80’s filmmakers). Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer, aka, the Duffer Brothers have mashed up E.T. with The Thing and remixed elements of Goonies and Poltergeist into one eight-episode series that feels both semi-derivative and nostalgic, familiar, and new.
Indeed, for fans of 1980’s sci-fi and horror of the PG-13 ilk, Stranger Things is an intoxicating throwback. It’s a 2016 television series airing on a modern streaming service that’s not only set in the early 1980s, but presented exactly like a 1980’s movie, complete with grainy cinematography, an 80’s soundtrack, a John Carpenter-like synth score, and pitch-perfect B-acting (especially from Winona Ryder, who goes heavy on the histrionics). It’s the kind of show that feels like it should be watched on a VCR.
The setup sees Will — who looks like E.T.’s Elliot and lives with his mom in a house that looks like it came straight of a Spielberg movie — confronted by a mysterious The Thing like creature that seems to have been bred in a power plant. Will is captured, and the quiet, peaceful Indiana town is upended by his disappearance.
Will’s single mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) recruits the town sheriff (David Harbour) to help with the search, while Will’s dorky, D&D playing Goonies/Stand By Me friends take to their bicycles to do some sleuthing of their own. In the process, they meet a boyish-looking girl (Eleven) with telepathic powers who doesn’t initially understand English (until she learns by watching TV — she’s basically the E.T. of the film).
Will’s disappearance and the arrival of the alien-like person seem to be connected, and the focal point of the ensuing investigation is a power plant run by a Matthew Modine character with the perfect 80’s villain name, Dr. Martin Brenner. Meanwhile, Ryder’s Joyce is communicating with her son through Christmas-tree lights a la Poltergeist while Will’s brother is quietly stalking a popular teenage girl whose boyfriend is basically Rick in The Last American Virgin.
It’s a terrific, easy-to-binge series for those of a certain age, but Stranger Things is so steeped in early 80’s cinema that I don’t know how well it would play with those who don’t have a deep understanding of the Amblin Entertainment catalogue. It’s much more than an homage to those films; it incorporates elements of all of them into the series, and while it might working as a chilling, stand-alone mystery, much of what makes it so enjoyable will be missing without that context. It’s incredible how much attention to those 80’s details the series is given by The Duffer Brothers, but those details may be lost on a new generation that didn’t grow up with Close Encounters, although fans of The X-Files should nevertheless find Stranger Things captivating throughout.
Stranger Things premieres July 15th on Netflix.