Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ is looking a lot like Spielberg – and that’s not a compliment

06.30.16 9 months ago

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When I walked out of J.J. Abrams's blatant Steven Spielberg pastiche Super 8 back in 2011, my first instinct was to like it and my second was to feel completely annoyed by it. For all of its good intentions and some effective sequences (specifically, that terrific train crash), Abrams” ode to Amblin”s Golden Age so self-consciously aped the moves of films like E.T., Close Encounters and The Goonies (the latter directed by Richard Donner, though Spielberg produced it) that it ultimately felt like a cynical exercise in nostalgia. 

Now we”ve got Stranger Things, the new 1980-set Netflix sci-fi/fantasy series that has now fully revealed itself as yet another banal reworking of the same old Spielbergian tropes Abrams so slavishly mimicked five years ago. Judging by the latest trailer, it”s all there: the quiet, tree-lined suburbs; the charming group of pre-adolescent male friends; nighttime cruises on bikes; the harried single mother (Winona Ryder); the shadowy government forces bent on tracking down what they don”t understand; etc. etc. etc.

While it would be unfair of me to assume that Stranger Things will fulfill all the worst fears I have about it based on a mere two-and-a-half minutes of footage, the stated intent of twin creators Matt and Ross Duffer is, in fact, to recreate not only the feel of the above-mentioned films but of their own childhoods — not to mention the ways in which said films informed their own experiences. From an interview with The Irish Examiner:

“We talked about if we could see any show what would it be and we wanted something in the vein of the classic films we”d loved growing up – Spielberg, John Carpenter, Stephen King”s books and his adaptations as well. What made those stories so great and resonant was that they explored that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

“We grew up in North Carolina and we were regular kids living in a suburb playing Dungeons and Dragons with our friends so when we watched these films we felt transported. Like our lives suddenly had potential for adventure.”

Look, it”s hard to knock that kind of earnestness, and again, I haven”t seen the show yet. And yet it”s that very earnestness that makes it difficult for me not to feel skeptical about the end product. Now that the Duffer brothers are on record with their intentions, the question becomes whether they can go above and beyond their own strong desire to give us something old by showing us something new. History has proven that aping other filmmakers without injecting new life into the old formula doesn”t tend to result in good material, and that”s perhaps more true of Spielberg homages than anything else given just how deeply those motifs have bled into the culture. Ultimately, anyone with the cojones to pay such direct tribute to the most famous filmmaker of all time better make damn sure they”re not just blandly (or even skillfully) recreating a blueprint we've already seen perfected.

Stranger Things premieres July 15 on Netflix.

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