One of my most seminal movie going experiences involves E.T.
That movie hit the theaters back when I was six years old and, at the time, my entire world had been rocked by the arrival of my baby brother. I was perfectly content to be living the life of an only child and when my parents decided that they wanted more offspring, I took this as a personal affront. Couldn’t’ they see how happy our little family of three was? Why were they bringing someone new into the picture? I was annoyed by the idea of a younger sibling in the abstract, but now that they had actually gone through with it and brought a baby home, I was none too happy (and knowing me, probably made sure that my parents were well aware of this fact). Perhaps as an olive branch, my parents hatched a plan for me to go see E.T. in the theaters, a movie that I had been obsessed with but hadn’t seen. How much did I want to go see this movie? My only real interest in the birth of my future sibling was my passionate argument to my parents that should they have a boy, he should be named Elliot – not only in honor of the little boy in the movie but because his initials would actually be E.T. I thought that this was genius; they were less impressed and ultimately went in an entirely different direction when it came to names. 30+ years later, I still think that this was a missed opportunity (Sorry, Matt). I was willing to saddle my brother with the name from a movie that I hadn’t even seen yet, so clearly my pop culture inclination developed early.
When I was a kid, going to the movies didn’t happen very often, so their willingness to take me to see E.T. was a special treat. My dad took the day off from work to stay home with my then one-month old brother (how progressive!) and my mom and I made the trek to the movie theater. The movie wasn’t playing near our house, so we had to make the 35 minute drive to the Northway Mall (R.I.P.) in Colonie to see it. The showing that we were aiming for was actually sold out when we got there (which I assume I handled with grace and understanding and most certainly didn’t pitch a fit about), so we had to hang around for the later show. I remember at the time feeling like we were so far from home and that it was so late by the time we left the theater, but in reality it was probably 5 pm and it just got dark early because winter was coming. Kids aren’t smart.
I remember all this not just because of the circumstances of going to finally see E.T., but because I also utterly and completely loved that movie. As a grown-up, I tend to be unimpressed with Spielberg, but as a six year old little girl I was so charmed by the movie. It was like anything was possible and for the movie runtime I forgot about all my kid problems and the fact that there was a baby at home who was sucking up all the attention (I also became determined to dress my brother up like they did to E.T. at Halloween; finally this kid had some potential).
To this day, if I see footage of those kids flying on bicycles, somewhere in my cold, dark heart I can still feel some of that pure joy I felt when I first saw E.T.
I bring this lengthy intro up not to embarrass my brother (side benefit), but because the Netflix series Stranger Things was able to access that same feeling that I had when I first saw E.T. The series is able to tap into the nostalgia of 80s movies and made me feel like a kid again, which is hard to do with someone as cynical as me. I binge-watched Stranger Things and happily regressed a bit to a time when my biggest problem was that I wasn’t the center of attention anymore.
In the broadest of strokes, Stranger Things takes place in 1980s Hawkings, Indiana and focuses on a group of 12 year old boys: Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp). One night, Will mysteriously disappears, sending his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) into a panic. Shortly thereafter, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas discover Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl their age that has psychokinetic powers. Stranger Things focus on the weird things that are happening in and around Hawkings as three groups try to find Will: his friends and Eleven, his mother and Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), and Jonathan and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer).
What is so impressive about Stranger Things is that it doesn’t just coast on a wave of nostalgia; because I didn’t see a ton of movies when I was a kid, I didn’t get half of the references that the show was making to other classic 80s movies, but that didn’t impede my ability to enjoy the series. It may have done a bang up job of recapturing and recreating a lot of what made movies from that time so loved, but Stranger Things completely stands on its own merits. As a child of that time, Stranger Things is kind of calibrated to hit that sweet spot of my childhood, but even if you have never seen E.T., Stand By Me, or It, you could still love the series. Stranger Things also plays with some of the tropes from this time period by acknowledging them but then changing them from what you expect. The bad boy boyfriend is a staple of 80s movies, but in Stranger Things Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) isn’t quite so one-dimensional and when you think he might zig, he actually zags. It’s both familiar and different all at the same time.
I also can’t say enough about the casting director for this show. It’s hard enough to find one child actor that is capable of doing some heavy lifting in a series or movie, but Stranger Things has found a goldmine of young talent in this cast. They are all great, but special recognition is needed for Millie Bobby Brown who does so much and says so little. She is, in effect, the E.T. stand-in and she wordlessly is able to communicate so much with just a look or the slightest physical movement. It’s really quite something to watch. The only reason that she doesn’t run away with the entire series is because the rest of the kids are so good as well (shout-out to my man Dustin, who is probably my favorite character). The older kids and adults are fantastic as well and I have to say that it is so nice to have Winona Ryder back in my life. Stranger Things is able to juggle the three storylines (the kids, the teens, and the adults) so effortlessly that they can seamlessly move between the groups (or bring them together) and it is always interesting. There really isn’t a weak link in the actors or in the storylines. It all just works. After I tore through the eight episodes of the first season, I was so sad that it was over.
Some random thoughts:
- I really have no idea why the Internet has made such a big deal of the character of Barb (Shannon Purser). Like, she’s cool and all, but she really didn’t do anything to create such fan devotion, in my opinion. I realize I’m in the minority on this.
- Probably my favorite side theory that has come out of this show is the idea that it is a prequel to Parks and Recreation.
- This (more credible) fan theory is pretty compelling.
- You don’t want to know how long I played around with this Stranger Things font generator.
- I don’t know if the show has any corporate tie-in with Eggos, but after watching the series I was compelled to buy some. I hadn’t had them since I was a kid and they were freaking delicious (in the last few weeks, I’ve also purchased Ecto Cooler and Cap’n Crunch cereal, so it is possible that I’m Benjamin Button and don’t realize it. Or I’m just freaking out about turning 40 next month).
I really can’t recommend Stranger Things enough – it was a very fun ride and I can’t wait to see what they do next in a (probable) second season. If you are a child of the 80s, there is so much to love about this series, but it really is accessible and fun for people who don’t have the same point of reference that I do. Well-acted, well-written and well-directed – Stranger Things does pretty much everything really well. It’s the little show that could – passed over by nearly 20 networks before it landed at Netflix, the Duffer brothers had a vision and they stuck with it. I’m so glad that they did.
All eight episodes of Stranger Things are currently streaming on Netflix.