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Netflix's Stranger Things: an ode in the mode of E.T.


Winona Ryder is ready and able in Stranger Things. Netflix photo

Premiering: All eight episodes streaming on Netflix, beginning Friday, July 15th
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Millie Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Joe Keery, Joe Chrest, Randall P. Havens, Peyton Wich
Produced by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen

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“The Duffer Brothers,” as they’re identified in the credits for Stranger Things, are twins with a jones for otherworldly events, secretive, diabolical authorities and, in this particular case, the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

The limited, previous credits of collaborative Matt and Ross Duffer include Hidden and Fox’s ongoing Wayward Pines. But Netflix’s Stranger Things, which begins streaming all eight episodes on Friday, July 15th, clearly is their first full-fledged epic of sorts. Its parallels to E.T. become obvious but not to the point of anything resembling a full-blown remake. In fact, Stranger Things also can be seen as a nod to the much lesser known Eerie, Indiana, a short-lived 1991 series about hyper-imaginative, bike-riding kids intent on investigating and solving a series of strange happenings in their small Midwestern town.

Stranger Things originally was titled Montauk, and set in a small Long Island town of that name when announced in April of last year. The venue is now Hawkins, Indiana, circa 1983. The series’ principal adult characters, played by Winona Ryder and David Harbour, are both coping with divorces and senses of loss. But although key to the storyline, Stranger Things is mostly built on a foundation of kids in their early teens.

Two of them, Will (Noah Schnapp) and his older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), belong to Ryder’s Joyce Byers. Will and his three geeky pals, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Galen Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), are addicted to a fantastical board game that very much resembles Dungeons & Dragons. While riding home one night after another long night of play, Will ventures near the reliably sinister and off-limits Hawkins National Laboratory, supposedly run by the U.S. Department of Energy and commanded by steely Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). Uh-oh, Will suddenly vanishes.

The community’s unkempt chief of police, Jim Hopper (Harbour), initially is under-concerned while Joyce Byers shifts immediately into frantic mode. Ryder, it should be noted, is very good at displaying utter desperation and anguish. Her pain and steadfast belief that Will is still alive and communicating with her are key, core elements in the twisting plot that propels these eight chapters through subtitles ranging from “Holly, Jolly” to “The Monster.”

Meanwhile, the E.T. element kicks in when a largely mute young girl with a buzz cut and “011” tattooed on her arm wanders into Benny Burgers. The ill-fated owner takes pity on the waif and feeds her. But he also calls the “authorities,” which in dramas such as this is never a good idea.

“Eleven” (Millie Brown), who had been held captive and experimented upon at the Hawkins Laboratory, eventually is taken in by Mike, who dubs her “El” for short. She has little knowledge of the “real world,” prompting Mike to both tutor and hide her. “What is ‘friend,’ “ she asks poignantly.

After much ado about what to do with her, Mike and his friends enlist El to help them find Will. She has powers beyond mere mortals, triggered by intense concentration that causes nose bleeds and overall fatigue. El’s replenishing fuel of choice is Eggo waffles in place of the Reese’s Pieces deployed in E.T..

Older kids also get involved. Mike’s sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), is trying to be a good girl in the face of determined advances by a boy named Steve (Joe Keery), who’s not all bad. Will’s introverted brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), strives to calm his outwardly crazed mother before eventually teaming with Nancy on a seek and destroy mission.

All eight episodes of Stranger Things were made available for review. Binge-watchers can be assured that there’s closure at the end of them, but also a few string-along loose ends in case a second season emerges.

In this case, though, a single-shot “limited series” seems like the way to go -- and then stop. Stranger Things, buoyed by its considerable kid power and bolstered by Ryder’s strong work, tells a complete and pretty satisfying story despite a few plot pot holes. Getting to know the central kids is a good part of the fun amid all the serious business at hand. But this is anything but a spoof. Instead it’s a fantastical story of ingenuity and determination triggered by strange and also very bad things happening to a dinky Indiana town. The rooting interests are many and varied in a drama that’s held together by the strength of its convictions and characters.


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