Warning: This post contains spoilers for “Stranger Things.”
Sometimes, an original idea isn’t that original.
Netflix’s new drama “Stranger Things” took this summer by storm. The show is set in the early 1980s in a small Indiana town that’s shaken up by the disappearance of a young boy into a mysterious supernatural world.
The show has clearly resonated in a huge way. It introduces a new world and characters to love and care about.
And yet, “Stranger Things” is bogged down by its obsession with movie references.
It seems weird for me to criticise a show for having movie references, given that I personally was brought up on Quentin Tarantino movies and TV shows like “Community.”
There’s nothing wrong with throwing in references, it’s what you do with them that counts.
The show’s world is brought to life from a nostalgia of ’70s and ’80s movies, as opposed to a fantasy version of what the ’80s were really like. You can bet there’s weird creatures and Cold War conspiracies.
For people like me, who did not spend a minute of their life in this decade, you might mistake it for the real thing. Since the show was released, several people have compiled gigantic lists of every movie The Duffer Brothers, who created the show, were paying tribute to. Their influences all come from good places.
One of the standouts is a scene in which Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) communicates with her son, who is stuck in the Upside Down, via a light show on her wall. It’s a pretty extraordinary moment that was pulled from Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which aliens communicate with humans through lights and music.
This is a great throwback that doesn’t really take away from anything.
However, it is sort of distracting that the haunting walk through the woods in the show’s finale looks exactly like the planet from “Alien.”
However, what is really distracting is the fact that these characters are all references.
Joyce mirrors the obsessive insanity of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) from “Close Encounters.” Meanwhile, it doesn’t feel right when the group of middle school friends, who are the heart of the show, feel more like an homage to “The Goonies” than an actual developed friendship.
The thing is, it doesn’t say anything new about these archetypes: it just rips them from the classics. Not to mention, the show breaks its own rules when it references 2002’s “Minority Report” and 2013’s “Under the Skin.”
None of the central characters would have seen either of these movies growing up.
They get in the way of the show’s strongest parts.
This summer’s multiplex has been stuffed with comic book adaptations, some better than others, and reboots nobody asked for (unless you really wanted a “Tarzan” reboot). Deep down, we are all craving a brand new mythology. “Stranger Things” came with that promise, but doesn’t quite deliver on it.
While trying to stay true to its influences, it forgets that it could one day become a classic like the movies it loves so much. In the end, the show doesn’t really explain the terrifying Upside Down that takes Will (Noah Schnapp) and the monster that claims the beloved Barb’s (Shannon Purser) life.
“Stranger Things” will most likely be renewed for a second season. While it hasn’t officially been renewed, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said they would be “dumb” not to bring it back. Hopefully, the show will use the second season to both explore and explain the Upside Down, while creating completely original characters on the level of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the mysterious young girl with telekinetic powers among others.
And yes, “Stranger Things” can continue to conjure up the classics if tries to become one in its own right. I don’t just want to watch “E.T.” I want to watch something that will be the next “E.T.”
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