Sincerity can be its own form of originality. That’s good for “Stranger Things,” a web of contemporary television melodrama and 1980s nostalgia airing in eight parts on Netflix.
The show was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, 32-year-old twins who’ve claimed inspiration from repeated home-video viewings of such movies as “E.T.” But “Stranger Things” needs no such introduction. It looks, in every nook and cranny, like an adaptation of a Stephen King book by Steven Spielberg collaborating with John Carpenter. It even directly refers to them, when it’s not busy re-creating scenes frame-for-frame from ’80s classics. That it stars 1980s movie icons Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine is icing on the layer cake of homage.
This same formula has been concocted multiple times at the cinema, for about a decade plus, by people as varied as J.J. Abrams and Nicolas Winding Refn. They’ve also told stories of kids battling evil and used scores reminiscent of Carpenter’s stripped-down electronic soundtracks. The 2010 film “Let Me In” looks as much of a color reference as anything from three decades ago.
One thing that’s fresh in “Stranger Things” is its earnestness. It tells a story of an evil force and secret government agents crawling around an unsuspecting, bucolic, American small town, where the kids have a preternatural ability to crack codes that go right over the heads of their parents. The feeling that story engenders isn’t found in such films as “Let Me In,” which also mined the ’80s but inverted the creature-kid hero dynamic and ended on an uncertain if not down beat.
“Stranger Things” has an almost identical look, but a completely different tone, gracefully balancing the sense of dread found in Carpenter’s gloomy sci-fi with the wonderment of Spielberg’s adventurous versions. Both of those things need an almost irony-free vacuum to exist, and “Stranger Things” lets them breath in such a space.
The sense of exuberance and fun that permeates the show is reflected in the child actors chosen to play the “Goonies”-style cast, from the younger audiovisual middle-school geeks with heart to their older siblings, and to the handful of adults able to tap into their own inner children. All revolve around an odd girl (Millie Brown) found wandering in the woods and the simultaneous loss of a young boy. Shadowy government scientist-agent-spooks (Modine gets paid to simply look menacing from a distance) haunt the periphery.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s meant to.
“You ever read a Stephen King book?” one incredulous adult asks the town sheriff (David Harbour) and the lost boy’s mother (Ryder). Carpenter’s poster for “The Thing” adorns one kid’s basement wall. The town they all live in is an invented one called Hawkins, but it seems a lot like Castle Rock, the setting for “Stand by Me.”
The score has an uncanny familiarity as well, although you’d never have found such a thing in a Spielberg film. It’s more Giorgio Moroder, the kind of stuff reserved for movies’ paper-thin budgets back in the day, like so many of Carpenter’s early films. Today it’s not quite the same: The difference is that almost everyone has a small budget for music, because almost everyone creates it on a computer. “Stranger Things” pulls off the trick of making something generic that everyone uses sound like homage, even if Refn beat the Duffer brothers to it by half a decade with “Drive” in 2011.
All these competing visual and aural cues are pulled together by the wonderful opening credits sequence, neon graphics given a speckled, filmic texture by way of digital enhancement, an irony that exists whether it’s intended or not.
The show’s buoyant charms help carry the viewer over gulfs in logic that are indicative of movies or television in any age. The odd girl could, if allowed, tell everyone what’s going on in one conversation, but doles out her secrets one at a time to keep the plot alive. Glaringly obvious symbolism explodes into scenes without notice by the characters, and the kids are too precocious by half, and too often for the show’s good. Their constant, screechy arguments with each other are the only thing really wearying.
The formula may seem new or old, depending on your age and cultural reference points, but it’s thoroughly unpretentious nonetheless, like an old-fashioned popcorn flick in the serial format that is the current television craze. Oscar Wilde wrote that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” With “Stranger Things” we might modify it to sincerity being the most flattering form of imitation. It may not be greatness, but it’s great entertainment. S