The children of the 1980s were the last before a lot of things changed. We were the last generation not to have cell phones, not to have video games, not to have parents who worried if we strayed from the yard. We were also the first children raised on Stevens Spielberg and King, on all that cultural detritus that conferred a veneer of legitimacy on the folklore of aliens and ghosts. This very particular variety of North American childhood was able to exempt itself from the problems of adults by disappearing until dinner time.
Netflix’s Stranger Things, released in full last Friday, has been tailored to appeal to nostalgia for those years. The creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, could not have picked better timing. They could not, of course, have predicted that the weekend they’d release the show they’d be competing for viewers’ attention with innumerable examples of mass gun violence, the growing incoherence of the Republican presidential candidate, and chaos in Turkey. They could not have guessed that the appetite for escapism would have grown so severe that people were literally enchanted by an app that placed cute cartoon animals in their everyday surroundings. The time was ripe to return to the comforts of childhood.
The plot of Stranger Things is so simple that even a brief description risks spoiling it. The action takes place in Indiana, in a kind of nondescript suburb-pace small town surrounded by nondescript wooded areas. In the opening episode, a small gang of boys of the kind you’d find in The Goonies or Stand By Me gathers in a fake-wood-paneled basement to do pre-adolescent boy things. As he bikes home in the dark that night, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is abducted in a flash of lightning and by the shadow of a strange creature. Will’s mother, played by Winona Ryder, begins to hear him crying out from the walls of her house.
Meanwhile, a stranger has appeared on the scene: Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has a shaved head and large, frightened eyes and an indeterminate background of government experimentation. She has memories of a malevolent scientist (Matthew Modine) who soon shows up in town. Eventually, Eleven reveals that she knows where Will is, but not before she’s enchanted his band of friends, especially the generically-named Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard).
By design, this is a story you’ve heard before, even though it’s brand new. Yesterday, Stephen King, who’d evidently been bingeing himself, tweeted that watching the show was like “watching Steve King’s Greatest Hits. I mean that in a good way.” In fact, King is all over this thing, to points where, had he not made more money than Croesus already, he might have sympathetically complained of copyright infringement: The title sequences are designed to resemble his books, and much of the other world where Will is trapped seems reminiscent of the sewer-abode of Pennywise the Clown in IT.
The casting of Ryder, too, is obviously nostalgic seasoning. The showrunners are quite open about this, telling interviewers they were “huge fans growing up.” They made plain that they hoped to evoke the version of Ryder from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, the girl who didn’t flinch in the face of extreme weirdness. The attraction is not very hard to understand. Ryder isn’t just a “movie star” in the traditional sense. She wasn’t simply glamorous. In her heyday she embodied a type that even now doesn’t seem available to most young women: the weirdo. Granted that her shell was conventionally beautiful, what was living in there was quite strange.
So the earnest role that Stranger Things asks Ryder to play—to fret over a lost child, to scream and shout at ineffective and occasionally malign authorities—isn’t really what she’s most suited for. As an actress, she is sure-footed enough, and her scenes with Eleven manage to transcend the simplicity of the writing. Ryder’s character is supposed to be comforting this strange, otherworldly child, but the whole sequence plays like a hand-off. Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven, resembles Ryder, particularly in her possession of wide, wounded eyes that she can wield to pathetic effect. The viewer is invited to imagine that perhaps, in time, Brown will acquire Ryder’s fidgety charms, too.
The show is very good at what it does. Very little time is wasted on exposition, on subplots. The scares are genuinely scary and the risks apparent. The usual science-fiction apparatus of “mythology” is absent. Stranger Things is also mercifully free of the kind of self-awareness that, say, the Scream franchise had about all the horror clichés it was employing and subverting. It also isn’t camp in the knowing, cynical Ryan Murphy vein. There is a kind of purity of intent here, a desire to deliver something as simply pleasing as E.T.
Perhaps the comparison to E.T. is unfair, even though the show practically gets down on its knees and begs us to do it. Stranger Things lacks the ambition to really go for the primal moments Spielberg did. There is no slow-motion liberation of laboratory frogs here, no transcendent flight of the bikes. The Duffers go for competence rather than wonder every time, and while they are smart to do that, keeping the show on an even keel, it means that Stranger Things evaporates after you see it, a popcorn pleasure but not a whole lot more.
After all there is one promise of the genre Stranger Things fails to deliver on: the resolving act of heroism that keeps children feeling like the world is controllable. When the government grabbed E.T., Elliott was able to steal him back. The Emperor is thrown down a chute, and Darth Vader dies. The Goonies get the house back. The dark force behind Pennywise is defeated. Stranger Things, clearly pitching a second season in its final scenes, can’t quite do that. The final battle is inconclusive, and the bad guys are still around. That is perhaps the more adult sort of resolution, the one aspect of Stranger Things that reflects the despair of the time in which it has aired. But it lacks the satisfaction, say, of Yoda looking at the stars and promising, “There is another.”