What happened to this year’s summer movie season?
This is the time when the world craves a bombastic blockbuster that not only rakes in a gazillion dollars but has the cultural impact to keep people talking. This year, all possible contenders fell short: “Suicide Squad” made a ton of money but by all accounts didn’t make any sense. “Ghostbusters” was dampened by raging controversy. “Finding Dory” was cute, yet far from Pixar’s greatest. “Independence Day: Resurgence” has already been forgotten. Same with “Captain America: Civil War.” And did anyone really need another “Jason Bourne” sequel?
Now it’s mid-August, so we’ve basically reached the dregs of the movie release cycle. Where was our “Jurassic World”? “Inside Out”? “Guardians of the Galaxy”? “The Dark Knight Rises”? Fear not: Even though an all-around successful, clever and suspenseful movie couldn’t be found in multiplexes, it turns out that we really did get a summer blockbuster.
It’s just on Netflix.
That’s right: Looking back at the scope of summer movie season, it’s clear that “Stranger Things” — the sci-fi thriller centered on a young boy who disappears from a small town — is the blockbuster we need. It just happens to be a TV show.
How did that happen? Even Netflix wasn’t expecting the critical praise and unstoppable buzz the show has received. “The big surprise for us has been ‘Stranger Things,’” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. “These are brand-new filmmakers, [creators] the Duffer brothers, and with a cast of complete unknowns.”
For those who haven’t been compelled to tune in after seeing your umpteenth Facebook friend raving about it, the show, set in 1983, starts as a middle-schooler named Will is playing an epic game of “Dungeons & Dragons” with his three best friends. Through a series of supernatural events, Will vanishes on his bike ride home. Thus begins an intensive search by his mother (Winona Ryder), the police and his friends, joined by a mysterious young girl named Eleven. Soon, conspiracies are everywhere, heavily driven by a mysterious science lab in town.
Part of the reason the show feels like a movie: Throughout all eight episodes, creators and twins brothers Matt and Ross Duffer lovingly pay tribute to many classic movies from the 1970s and 1980s, such as “Alien” and “Stand By Me.” Eventually it becomes a game — how many references can you spot? One fan video in particular does a tremendous job of tracking all of them, from “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” to “The Goonies” to “Firestarter” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
There’s also a heavy dose of ’80s scenery (those clothes! those haircuts! those phones!) and Stephen King’s horror sensibility. The author himself recently tweeted that watching “Stranger Things” is like watching “Steve King’s greatest hits.” “I mean that in a good way,” he added.
Tapping into that kind of nostalgia is a brilliant move, and one that is constantly seen at the movies. But the Duffer brothers, who were also writers on Fox’s sci-fi drama “Wayward Pines,” had no interest in going the film route — even for a story that would have fit perfectly on the big screen, if compressed in two hours.
“If you’re doing a movie, the minute you put a monster in it, it becomes a horror movie. And if it’s a horror movie nowadays, it’s basically a haunted house ride. You’re trying to get jump scares every six, seven minutes,” Matt Duffer told the New York Times. “But a place like Netflix, they actually care a lot more about the characters. So we’re able to tell these very character-driven stories and also appease our childlike sensibilities by putting a flesh-eating monster in it.”
Then there’s the ineffable quality that you can’t actually measure, yet ensures that everyone talks about it all through the summer. Not only do the eerie story lines and cliffhangers keep you glued to the screen and then scrambling to your phone to Google fan theories, but the cast is phenomenal. Plus, look for Ryder (who plays Will’s frantic mother to perfection) to top the best actress Emmy race next year, along with many young actors and actresses who are already beloved by social media. Not to mention the internet’s obsession with poor Barb (Shannon Purser), Will’s older sister’s best friend and classic third wheel.
At the end of it all, though, it’s simply really fun to watch. The Hollywood Reporter movie critic Daniel Fienberg sums it up: “With a juicy comeback role for Winona Ryder, a cast of unknown youngsters inspiring countless ‘Who’s your favorite?’ online pieces and a spooky premise that’s brought to life vividly despite a moderate budget, ‘Stranger Things’ is a callback to countless summer movies several generations grew up on,” he wrote. “And it’s in most ways superior to anything at the multiplex, or on TV, this summer.”