by Adam Kaplan –
If you were born after 1976, there’s a good chance that Steven Spielberg has affected your life in some way. You were 6 when E.T.: The Extraterrestrial came out. You were 17 when Jurassic Park came out. Growing up, you probably had a chance to see Raiders of the Lost Ark and it’s two sequels. You grew up on Steven Spielberg films. Personally, I was born about a decade later, but with the proliferation of the VCR and VHS tapes, I still was able to grow up with Spiely. Spielberg had an incredible sense of vision, action, and wonderment.
Unfortunately, as Steven Spielberg got older, he lost his sense of wonderment. He started making films for his upper age bracket and beyond. Films like War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies don’t appeal or resonate with a younger generation the way even films like Schindler’s List and The Color Purple did. When Spielberg has gone back to his roots with films like The Adventures of Tintin or The BFG, they feel like photocopy of his former work. By the way, that’s perfectly fine. Steven Spielberg is almost 70 years old and has been making films for over 40 years; he can do what he wants. However, it’s disappointing as a film fan.
Luckily, we have a new wave of Spielberg fans making films the way their mentor used to make them. They’re bringing back the adventure and sense of wonderment that made Steven Spielberg so great to begin with. On the film side, the two most popular films in this vein are J.J. Abrams’ 2011 film Super 8 and Jeff Nichols’ 2016 adventure Midnight Special. Both films use a lot of the same tropes that Spielberg used to use: centering the story around kid(s), antagonists from the Government in hazmat suits, a sympathetic Government bureaucrat, and of course lens flares. Both Super 8 and Midnight Special are excellent and worth the watch, yet surprisingly, both films suffer from the same problem. They fail to stick the landing. Partially because the first and second act of each film is so good, but partially because really only Steven Spielberg can make a great Steven Spielberg films from start to finish. As good of filmmakers as Abrams and Nichols are, they aren’t The King.
Or maybe J.J. Abrams and Jeff Nichols just didn’t have enough time to tell their story, because the Netflix original television show Stranger Things both gives us a great Spielberg project the way Super 8 and Midnight Special did, but is also able to land the plane safe and sound. Stranger Things, created by Matt and Ross Duffer, gives us the first great Steven Spielberg adventure film in this post-Spielberg era.
Stranger Things follow three groups of characters, a group of three middle-school aged boys and their newfound friend Eleven who has magical powers, high schoolers Jonathan and Nancy who seems to be pulled straight out of a John Hughes movies, and Sherriff Hopper and Joyce (aka the glorious return of Winona Ryder) as they search out to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers. This show has all of the elements of a classic Spielberg adventure as mentioned above, but so much more. It pulls a monster and score out of a John Carpenter flick while also throwing in elements from Stephen King adaptions as well as other late 80’s, early 90’s classics.
Though as nostalgic as Stranger Things is, it stands up as its own singular thing thanks to incredible performances. It has a break out role from character actor David Harbour as the gruff Sheriff with a heart-of- gold, and every single child actor is just incredible. The reason Spielberg adventure films work as well as they do is because you’re invested in his characters. The same holds true for the Stranger Things cast. And unlike Super 8 and Midnight Special, Stranger Things is able to coalesce its many plot points and character arcs into a satisfying ending.
Steven Spielberg films have always tended to be huge works of art, both from the production design and world building prospective. We now live in an era where more money is being pumped into television and is becoming bigger and bigger. It’s also the place where more and more auteurs are gravitating towards to tell their long-form stories. Therefore, it would make sense that television would be the place where we would see the next great Steven Spielberg adventure film.