A shady government installation is up to no good. Flashlights form visible beams in the misty night air and kids ride around on their bikes trying to solve a supernatural mystery while the adults run around hopelessly clueless.
Sound familiar? It should, because those are the necessary ingredients for the early works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, particularly the ones that came to define the popular cinematic and literary culture of the 1980s.
As it so happens, “Stranger Things” — a new Netflix series whose complete first season consisting eight episodes debuted July 15 — is like the love child that Spielberg and King never had. Created by the Duffer Brothers (“Wayward Pines”), the show is a delightfully retro mixture of “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Poltergeist,” “IT,” “The Mist,” “Firestarter” and a little bit of “Carrie” thrown in for good measure.
Set in November of 1983, the series takes place in the small Midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana. From the opening scene, we see that something sinister is going on at the U.S. Department of Energy backed Hawkins National Laboratory. Score one for King.
Then we transition to a bunch of adorable middle school boys (akin to “E.T.”’s Elliot or “Super 8”’s Joe Lamb) playing Dungeons & Dragons, a poster of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” expertly hiding in the background as an ominous foreshadowing of things to come.
When one of them, Will Byers, goes missing, the town is placed at odds with a top secret government project attempting to cover up their tracks. Matthew Modine shines as Dr. Martin Brenner, the leader of the project that experimented with LSD and mind control to fight the Russians.
Winona Ryder plays Will’s mother, Joyce, a divorcee raising two boys on her own while her no-good-ex lives with his new and younger girlfriend. Score one for Spielberg. Ryder’s performance could be the indication of a meteoric comeback and conjures up memories of Melinda Dillon in “Close Encounters of The Third Kind;” it’s one of desperate grief over her son’s disappearance, which leads her to do some interesting things involving a slew of Christmas lights so that she can communicate with Will, similar to what the family does in “Poltergeist.”
Teaming up with Joyce is David Harbour, as the town’s cynical chief of police, Jim Hopper. While he initially treats the disappearance like any other routine case, he eventually begins to risk his own safety all for the sake of a personal loss that left him scarred and distant.
But it’s Will’s friends Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin) who are perfectly cast. Like the kids from “Stand by Me,” they show their loyalty to their buddy and with knowledge of nerdy subjects like D&D and ham radios, communicate via walkie talkies and sneak out at night to go on adventures.
The boys’ tight-knit group is tested by the appearance of Eleven (an entrancing turn from 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown), a young and enigmatic girl with strange powers, terse vocabulary and a sense of curiosity. In one “E.T.”-esque sequence, Mike fakes sick to stay home and shows her his “Star Wars” action figures while she explores household things like television and a La-Z-Boy recliner. Score two for Spielberg. Eleven helps them get even with the school bullies, but also sheds light on what’s been terrorizing the town, an entity from a parallel dimension. Score two for King.
From its eerie synthesized soundtrack, to its dime store horror novel title font (you can almost smell the cheap glue and yellowing paper), to its spot-on musical cues (Peter Gabriel’s ethereal take on Bowie’s “Heroes” and Joy Division’s poignant “Atmosphere”), to its “Twilight Zone”-y episode titles, the show is a love letter to the grand tradition of B-grade monster movies and a bygone era before cell phones and the Internet, a time when kids could really be kids.
While the plot is driven by the otherworldly mystery, “Stranger Things” is really about the innocence of youth, the attraction of young love and a general sense of wonder; the idea that — in the words of Jack Black — there’s still some magic left in this world and we can all have a piece of it … for the price of a Netflix account.