Somewhere along the path of lost-and-found ideas, popular culture decided that the rip-off is the highest form of praise there is.
Rip-off, of course, is an insulting word to apply to something as absorbingly entertaining as “Stranger Things 2,” the hotly anticipated sequel to Netflix’s rapturously retro hit miniseries “Stranger Things.” Even “derivative” carries a whiff of disdain.
And so we settle on “homage,” the all-purpose word that made it safe for filmmakers and TV creators to build new stories from the sentimental scraps of stuff that came before. It grants audiences the freedom to enjoy such fare without feeling obliged to decry the excessive borrowing.
J.J. Abrams is a master of wearing his many influences the way Superman wears an "S," noticeable and out front. Not long after Abrams made 2011's "Super 8," a kids-discover-aliens paean to the films of Steven Spielberg, Disney gave him the job of bringing George Lucas's "Star Wars" back to greatness (Abrams had already reinvigorated Paramount's "Star Trek" franchise) and the solution is always the same: Reference the heck out of it. Homage it till it hurts. When copying becomes the surest way to a hit, is it any wonder TV is awash in reboots, revivals and reimagined reruns?
The Duffer Brothers — 33-year-olds Matt and Ross — might be even better at this kind of thing than Abrams. Their first “Stranger Things” arrived in the summer of 2016 looking very much like an old videocassette movie found on the back shelf in a summer lake cabin. Although its production values are strictly 21st-century, the essence of “Stranger Things” is fed by a never-dry river of 1980s nostalgia that informs its plot, setting and characters. It carries through to the tiniest and lavishly accurate details, from something as obvious as the Benguiat font styling of its title down to the period-exact Swatch watch seen on a character’s wrist. Easy references to Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter drench “Stranger Things,” as do obvious nods to the decade’s slasher films and teen-angst comedies.
The first season was set in late 1983, in the tiny town of Hawkins, Ind., where a harried single mother, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder, whose very presence acts as an ’80s imprimatur) goes out of her mind with worry when her introverted 12-year-old son, Will (Noah Schnapp), disappears while bicycling home from a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game with his best pals Mike, Dustin and Lucas (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin). Before long, Will seems to be communicating with his mother through lightbulbs.
An initially disengaged police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), follows clues to the high-security national laboratory on the edge of town, where an obsessed scientist, Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), conducts inter-dimensional experiments that have loosed a monstrous horror on the community, a beast that takes its victims back to a parallel existence nicknamed “the Upside Down.”
Will’s buddies, meanwhile, hunt for their friend with the urgent energy of Spielbergian youth, pedaling wildly past curfew on their bikes (see “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”) and shouting their hunches and theories to one another in a “Goonies”-like cacophony (“Guys! You guys! Listen!”), the sort of excitably bad acting that only children can get away with. The boys meet a frightened, nearly mute girl, an escapee from the lab nicknamed Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, whose wordless talent got her an Emmy nomination).
In the final showdown, Eleven’s psychokinetic abilities saved the day — and broke hearts. Will came home and promptly upchucked some sequel potential into the bathroom sink, as if to suggest that there is nothing more ’80s than an ambiguous walk-off that anticipates the next bigger horror.
If the Duffers were only just trying to be '80s mimic artists, they might have intentionally delivered a lesser sequel, something bloated and jokey. An understood part of the box-office circle of life back in the day was that the sequel to a big hit is almost always a letdown (unless it's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" or "The Empire Strikes Back").
So here’s the good news: “Stranger Things 2” is marginally better and more satisfying than the original. The story this time, told over nine episodes, has the luxury of slowing down, which builds some suspense and gives the main characters (especially Ryder’s) a chance to develop. “Stranger Things 2” also gets the chance to present a premise that is more than just a riff.
The show still piles on the pop. To “Stranger Things’ ” debts, you can now add a half-serving of James Cameron’s “Aliens” and a passing glance at the renegade-mutant narratives that drive Marvel’s comic-book universe (like we needed more of that). These added references mainly act as treats for those who catch them. Therefore, a magic coin will go to the first person in the room to shout “Indiana Jones!” when an imperiled character reaches back to barely retrieve a beloved hat.
Netflix has pinky-sworn critics to not divulge certain plot points: What became of Eleven? (All one really can say is that Brown is in the credits.) What about Dr. Brenner? (Netflix forbids me from even speculating!) What about this new character played by Linnea Berthelson? (Who? What? Forget it!) But all this top-secret legalese makes me wonder: Do people really love “Stranger Things” because the plot is all that fantastically unpredictable, or because they’re watching it for an overall, buttered-popcorn experience?
The story picks up in October 1984, nearly a year after the first series. The seldom-mentioned monster of puberty has been barely kept at bay. Our boys are still boys, but Will continues to be haunted by visions of the Upside Down, while his friends are befuddled by the arrival of a skateboarding California girl, Max (Sadie Sink), who treats them as hopeless nerds but obviously wants in on their adventures. When Lucas breaks sworn silence to confide to Max about the strange things that happened last year, Max listens and, as if directly responding to some reviews of Season 1, pronounces it pure make-believe: “A little derivative in parts. . . . I just wish it had a little more originality.”
“You don’t believe me?” Lucas asks.
“How gullible do you think I am?” she replies.
Proudly dressed as the Ghostbusters for Halloween, the boys learn the hard way that their middle-school peers consider themselves too cool for costumes (the Duffers are firm believers in Spielberg’s idea that growing up is the only true horror story), while, over at Hawkins High School, Mike’s big sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) struggles with her guilt over the disappearance of her friend Barb (Shannon Purser, a fan favorite), and seeks investigative help from Will’s older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who pines for her.
Some viewers might think “Stranger Things 2” moves too slowly for the first three or four episodes; except for Dustin’s encounter with a mysterious [insert a top-secret homage to “Gremlins” here], only Chief Hopper seems to be getting anywhere with the ongoing mystery of the Upside Down and the monster. His hunt leads him back to the lab, where Paul Reiser plays a new white-coated scientist, who is either a bad guy or a good guy. There’s an almost unbearable sense of ironic deja vu in a scene that is practically lifted wholesale from “Aliens,” which Reiser did 31 years ago.
Throw in Sean Astin, who has come all this way from playing a determined treasure-hunting tyke in 1985’s “The Goonies” to playing Joyce’s golly-gee new love interest, and I think all you have left to figure out is how much popcorn (and other sustenance) it takes to get through a start-to-finish binge.
But that's not quite all. Critically speaking, it's possible to enjoy the ride while remaining a tad unresolved about what the Duffer Brothers are doing here, besides showing off and pining for a past they barely remember. They are, after all, too young to have had firsthand theatrical experience of the blockbuster canon they worship. Their VHS naivete enables them to celebrate those films' weaknesses as pure strengths.
They are clearly wistful for a kind of life that no longer exists. The boys in "Stranger Things" have most assuredly seen 1983's "WarGames," but, unlike its hero, they have not yet dialed up and made a digital connection that will never log off. The viewer winds up loving these kids because they are free — living a full-blown adventure in one of the last pre-Internet moments. Clunky, professional-grade walkie-talkies are the closest thing they have to a smartphone, and when they desperately need to know something, they rush off to the local library.
That’s as close as “Stranger Things” ever gets proffering a theme, or offering any sort of underlying meaning as to why it has been made (or why we like it). There is no lesson here other than it is fun to have fun. And what’s the point of arguing with that?
Stranger Things 2 (nine episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.