In the 1984 comedy Splash, there’s a running joke where Madison, a mermaid spending her first days on dry land, parrots the words she learned from a bank of televisions at a department store. It leads to exchanges like this one with Allen, the New Yorker who takes her in:
Allen: So, uh, how long are you going to be in town?
Madison (in game-show announcer voice): Six fun-filled days!
To apply this analogy to Netflix’s Stranger Things, showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer are the mermaid and everything they appear to have learned comes from popular movies of the ‘80s. This is not criticism so much as context, because like the mermaid in Splash, they’re both precocious students and highly entertaining company. For the show’s first hour, at least, it’s fascinating to see how much their vision of small-town Indiana plucks from the suburban sci-fi of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the nerd-kid adventure of The Goonies, and moody, synth-heavy texture of vintage John Carpenter movies. Even the opening credit font is determinedly retro.
If you want to play a game of “Spot the Reference” with Stranger Things, the shots are there for you, from three boys pedaling through the burbs on their bikes (á la E.T.) to a nod to Near Dark’s signature shot of backlit silhouettes at the top of a hill. But if the show were merely an assemblage of riffs on 30-year-old movies, it would ultimately feel inauthentic and tacky, an empty exercise in nostalgia. With this assured first episode, “The Vanishing of Will Byers,” the Duffers seems to have just as strong a sense of the emotional dynamics of the movies they love. Families that are chaotic or incomplete; close-knit communities hiding a big secret; grade-school outcasts who form strong bonds in face of peer rejection.
Consider the titular vanishing of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), for one. Heading home on his bike after a ten-hour Dungeons & Dragons campaign with his buddies — D&D isn’t mentioned explicitly, but the 20-sided die implies it — Will is chased by whatever monster snatched a scientist at the Hawkins National Laboratory in the premiere’s opening sequence. He manages to dash away on his bike and get back home, but neither his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), nor his older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), are home to save him. Will does his best to improvise an escape, getting so far as to load the family rifle in the shed, but the monster gets him. Whether he’s dead or alive — to say nothing of the monster’s origins and motives — is a question reserved for later.
Joyce and Jonathan are suitably frantic about the situation, as anyone would be over a missing child. But guilt underlies their panic. They regret not being there in Will’s time of need. One of them is supposed to be home with him, but Jonathan took a shift because they needed the money; they’re stuck living modestly without Joyce’s deadbeat ex-husband in the picture, so every bit counts. It’s probably not the first time work has kept them away from Will, who seems like the classic latchkey kid — more responsible and trustworthy than other middle-schoolers his age and not someone a parent would feel nervous about leaving home alone. Will is maybe a year or two older than Henry Thomas’s Elliott in E.T., but both are part of families where the mother is in charge. Though she may be a caring parent, Joyce cannot keep an eye on her youngest son at all times. It’s not her fault that Will is gone, but she feels acute guilt.
The Goonies stand-ins in this scenario are Will’s three buddies, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gatin Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), whose excitement over demogorgons and protection spells is not, unsurprisingly, shared by their fellow students. Getting bullied in school has become such a ritual for these boys that Dustin is exasperated by having to explain, once again, why he doesn’t have any teeth. (“I told you a million times! My teeth are coming in. It’s called cleidocranial dysplasia.”) If they didn’t already feel duty bound to search for their friend, Mike’s touching D&D anecdote seals it: Facing the demogorgon, Will had a choice to cast a protection spell, but instead he risked his character’s life by rolling for a fireball. (He need a 13 or higher. He got a seven.) “He put himself in danger to help the party,” Mike concludes. For that reason, they need to do the same.
The Duffers make other key introductions, including Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), a straight-A student who’s ascending the social ladder by dating cool-guy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), and Chief Hopper (David Harbour), the beer-swilling police officer in charge of the investigation. (If you’re counting the ‘80s references, Blue Velvet fans should take note of the last name.) Hopper’s reluctance to do police work of any kind has already yielded to strong investigative instincts and a sense that he cares more than he lets on. Not much is known yet of Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), the seemingly nefarious man who runs the Hawkins National Laboratory, but the mission to track down a powerful girl who’s escaped from the facility has already led his people to shoot a Good Samaritan point-blank in the head.
So, where does all go from here? If Stranger Things fulfills its promising start, we’ll know soon enough. The truth is out there …
Sorry, wrong decade.
- The spooky clicking sound before the monster attacks bears a striking resemblance to the alien hunters in Predator. Which just now brings me to this revelation: Stranger Things exists in the same world as the movies to which it pays homage. (In flashback, Joyce surprises Will with tickets to Poltergeist. E.T. would have really blown his mind.)
- Joyce has a Pinto in the front yard. Please enjoy this clip from Top Secret!, an ‘80s classic that she may have taken Will to see a few months earlier.
- J.R.R. Tolkien pedantry among A.V. club kids in the presence of a ham radio? Yep, these are nerds. Loud and proud!
- Period-music cues will no doubt run as far as the Duffers’ budget can afford them. Toto’s “Africa” was released two years before the action takes place in this premiere, but it’s the type of make-out-session mood setter that would stick around long after leaving the charts.