Stranger Things. Available Friday, July 15, on Netflix.
Nostalgia has a deservedly bad name. I'm still waiting for a director's cut of Grease in which we relive the good old days of Quemoy and Matsu,
Little Rock school integration, the thrilling early moments of space travel or creamed chipped beef.
So don't call Netflix's spooky, Spielbergian Stranger Things an avatar of '80s nostalgia. Rather, it's a loving homage to the moment early in that decade when newly empowered Baby Boomer directors turned the supernatural and sci-fi from a genre into the mainstream with a series of films in which kids battled forces—space aliens, vengeful ghosts, runaway technology, malevolent government agencies—beyond the dim comprehension of their clueless parents and teachers.
The Goonies, War Games, Stand by Me and Firestarter are all touchstones for Stranger Things. And any doubt about the identity of the show's intellectual godfather is resolved when one character, trying to explain what they're up against, asks a cop, "You read any Stephen King?"
An occasional wink like that one aside, Stranger Things is not a campy send-up but a hugely engrossing and enjoyably paranoid suspense thriller. It opens with a cataclysmic security failure at a secretive government lab in a small Indiana town. And whatever has gone missing, the lab's scientists are wearing hazmat suits and carrying automatic weapons while hunting for it.
The lab meltdown is followed, in short order, by the disappearance of a nerdish kid named Will (Noah Schnapp) from the local junior high. Though a search for him is organized, its prospects seem discouraging: The police chief (David Harbour, State Of Affairs) has never investigated anything bigger than serial garden-gnome theft, and his idea of a nutritious breakfast is Schlitz and toothpaste.
So Will's three friends—the sort of dorky pre-teen outcasts who stay in touch by walkie-talkie and shield themselves from social persecution in marathon Dungeons and Dragons sessions–decide to do their own legwork.
They don't have much success, but mucking around in the woods just outside town, they do encounter an odd little girl (Millie Bobby Brown, Intruders) sporting an unfeminine buzzcut, whose vocabulary doesn't extend much beyond "yes," "no," and "11," the number perhaps uncoincidentally tattooed on her arm above a bar code. The bar code, they soon discover, is far from her most exotic characteristic. As one of the boys says in a halting voice somewhere between awe and fear: "She … does stuff."
You don't need to be a cinematic Nostradamus to predict where things go from there, at least in broad outline. But whatever degree of predictability Stranger Things suffers from is more than made up by the wit of twin-brother producers Matt and Ross Duffer, lately of Fox's dystopian Wayward Pines, who did most of the writing.
Even the inevitable preposterous scene in which the school science teacher instructs the kids on how to tear a hole in the space-time continuum is neatly wrapped with a hilariously pompous warning: "Science is neat, but I'm afraid it's not very forgiving."
The show also gets a boost from the capable performances of its cast. Lead billing goes to Winona Ryder, slowly rebuilding a career that went into hibernation for a decade. No longer playing ingenues, she's inhabited a series of brittle middle-aged roles and does so again here as a frazzled single mom pushed the broken edge of sanity by her son's disappearance.
But good as she is, she's outshone by the cast's kids. None of the boys—they include Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin—has a long resume. (They're all so young that in some cases their voices changed between shooting and post-production, and other actors had to be brought in when re-recording snips of unclear dialogue was necessary.)
But they all expand their sharply written roles into fully rounded characters: bright but not geniuses, loyal friends but sometimes jealous and spiteful, and reflexively malicious to anybody outside their hermetically sealed circle.
Says one, his face a mask of mock innocence though he knows his sister's breakfast-table bragging about hard study is actually a front for a make-out session with a new boyfriend: "What was your test on again? Human anatomy?" And when one of the boys agrees to hide the fugitive Eleven in his family's basement overnight, the rest are horrorstruck: "What if he slept naked?"
But the real star is Brown, who brings the enigmatic and ill-used Eleven to heart-wrenching life almost without benefit of dialogue. Her face flickers with wonder, woe and menace, often in the same scene, in a way that even cynics who make a point of rooting for horror-movie monsters will not be able to resist. Stephen King supposedly wrote the book Firestarter just for Drew Barrymore to star in after he saw her in E.T. If he's watching Stranger Things, I wouldn't be surprised if his next novel is built around an 11-year-old girl with a buzzcut.