The 1980s have been quite the pop culture gold mine in the last few years, with a string of reboots and remakes aimed at capturing all the shiniest (and most revenue-generating) franchises the decade had to offer. Transforming robots, ghosts and the busting thereof, that one Bob Saget show with the house and the kids — they've all come full circle back to the land of the living, a few with the divine aura of rebirth but most with the shambling gait of the undead.
Rather than apply the big-budget defibrillator to an existing series, however, some creations are trying to capture the nostalgia of everyone's favorite synth-laden decade with a focus more on influence and homage. "Stranger Things," a new eight-episode miniseries released last weekend on streaming service Netflix, is the most recent example of this original '80s callback trend.
With a title card that screams out in equal parts mass-market paperback and backshelf Blockbuster VHS cover, "Stranger Things" harkens back to sci-fi flicks like "Explorers," "E.T." and "The Flight of the Navigator." In the fall of 1983, weird shit has surfaced in the small town of Hawkins, Ind., starting with the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) at the hands of some shady and out-of-focus creature.
One part of a four-piece D&D team of fellow nerdy middle school friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Will's disappearance leads the rest of the boys off in search of their friend. Equipped with slingshots and flashlights, they don't make much solid headway toward cracking the case, but they do meet Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a nearly mute young girl in a lab coat and shrouded in mystery. These kids make the show with their tight bickering and gangly goofiness (especially Matarazzo's Dustin — he's got a Chunk characteristic to him that's impossible not to smile at).
"Stranger Things" picks up pieces from various established '80s adorations without focusing too hard on copying any one specific film or show. Watch the eight-episode arch and you'll see hints of "The Goonies" as the kiddos hatch plans ripe with middle school ingenuity to rescue their friend. At the same time, shorter clips of a stalking monster cam woven in throughout draw more from the genre horror films that became popular during the decade.
While most of the show's many tethers of homage work, a few fall a bit flat. High school romantic tensions between Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and resident cool kid/sorta pompous ass Steve (Joe Keery) don't so much draw from the wonders of John Hughes movies as they do from a mid-tier rerun of "The Wonder Years." The side story isn't a complete wash, but it does feel a bit like a trope shoehorned in as a rather obvious '80s anchor rather than a tight fit with the rest of the show's creature feature and mystery vibe.
"Stranger Things" does nostalgia without the sometimes-distracting wink and nod that usually accompany a direct revival, instead setting out to craft a sendup to an era that can stand on its own in the current age. Let's hope they don't go all "True Detective" with the second season.
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