When a young kid, Will Byers, goes missing, his tight-knit pals — Mike, Dustin, and Lucas — mourn his absence. Then Eleven comes into the picture, an Eggo-loving girl with psychokinetic powers that escaped from a nearby laboratory with very unethical practices. Underneath the town looms what they call the “Upside Down,” aka a parallel universe.
With two seasons under its belt, which racked up a handful of Emmy nominees, and a third expected in July, the sci-fi series has proved to be a mega-hit for Netflix. The sci-fi series more than anything, is a homage to films and popular culture of the era. If you want a dose of paranoia-inducing alien flicks, government conspiracies or childhood nostalgia, then you should check these out.
9 Super 8
Set four years behind the first season of Stranger Things in 1979, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 rode the found footage trend of its time (it was released in 2011). There’s a lot of similarities to mine here: Both play out in the Midwest, surround a group of ragtag pals and both grapple with disappearing people, anxious parents and, well, government conspiracies and weird alien stuff.
Here’s the lowdown: While filming a zombie movie, a group of kids (Elle Fanning plays the token girl, Joel Courtney and Gabriel Basso round out the team) witness a train derail and barely escape with their lives intact. But it wasn’t an accident. Deputy Jackson Lamb, the father of the kids, helms the chase for the truth. Sheriff Jim Hopper, anyone?
E.T. is the defining alien-next-door of the ‘80s and perhaps of a whole generation. This iconic film, released in the Summer of ‘82, carries the essence of what Steven Spielberg does best. An alien creature is found in search of help, since his spaceship broke down. He eventually stumbles upon 10-year old Elliott, who takes him into his home unbeknownst to his parents (If Elliot could hide a weird alien, is it really that far of a stretch that Mike hid Eleven in his parent's basement?).
Where Stranger Things is cynical and jagged, E.T. teaches us relentless optimism in an era where paranoia was high and the Cold War was as frigid as ever.
7 Stand By Me
Stranger Things is grounded in science fiction, sure. The narrative of the “Upside Down”— a looming alternative universe —.drives the plot and bands the characters together. But the series is also a coming-of-age epic textured by changing friendships and hard truths. Take a few steps back: Stranger Things' first season begins with the main group of friends grappling with one of their own, Will, disappearing without a trace. We later find that he was pulled into the aforementioned Upside Down.
Stephen King’s Stand by Me operates in a similar mode. When Gordie, one of the main characters in Stand By Me, is told by his older brother that he saw the dead body of a local missing boy named Ray, he rounds up his friends — Chris, Teddy and Vern — to go recover it. Based on Stephen King’s The Body, the plot navigates the edge of adolescence and the loss of innocence, all underpinned by restless anxieties of the future.
6 The Lost Boys
Stylish goth vampires lurk a seaside California town in the criminally underrated The Lost Boys. When a new family moves into town, the younger son, Sam, takes up a friendship with the fellow comic book geeks, while the older son falls for a young woman named Star, who just so happens to be in cahoots with the leader of a punk-as-hell gang of Vamps. It’s a deliriously campy thrill ride that also offers a change of pace.
If you enjoy the dynamics of the older kids in Stranger Things — Nancy (Mike's sister), Jonathan (Will's brother) and Steve (the best babysitter) — with their younger counterparts, you’ll find similar vibes here.
5 Donnie Darko
The world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. At least that’s what Frank — an unknown figure in a raggedy bunny suit — tells Donnie, who’s in his older teens. In 2016, The Guardian wrote that Donnie Darko was “the missing link between Spielberg, King and Stranger Things."
Set in 1988, Donnie Darko is troubled by prophetic doomsday visions and teenage angst. Also set in an unremarkable town, the moody visuals and synth-powered soundtrack hit a similar cord as Stranger Things. It’s a mind-bending, stunning watch that manages to be imbued with a spectrum of emotion: Melancholy. Apathy. Emerging love. Disassociation. Satire. Told in snared tangles, nothing is certain, not even the ending.
In Gremlins, weird creatures wreak havoc on an unsuspecting suburban down during Christmas due to an unfortunate lapse of judgment. When Randall Peltzer receives a (seeming cute) furry creature as a gift, it comes with three simple rules: Don't expose it to sunlight, get it wet and, most importantly, don't ever feed it after midnight. Obviously, those rules were broken. Side note: Dustin (of Stranger Things) could’ve used this film’s guidance when he decided keeping the pollywog in his room was a good idea in season 2. Spoilers: Very similar hijinks ensue.
No hate on Gizmo though. He’s forever an angel who abides by all the rules and has the sweetest little smile.
Arrival deals in a much broader scope and scale. When towering and strange pod-like spaceships land in 12 locations around the globe, nations panic. At the center is Louise, a linguistics professor; she attempts to find a way to communicate with the strange unearthly beings as countries around the world call for more violent action.
Like Elliott attempting to communicate with E.T. despite massive language barriers, Arrival spins a remarkable — and beautiful case — for the power of diplomacy, connection and finding empathy. It’s serious and heavy, but also one of the best sci-fi movies in years. It's a must watch for any purveyor of the genre.
Poltergeist, co-written by Spielberg, is essentially the inverse of E.T., stripped of hope and replaced with seething cynicism. This chilling paranormal tale works to dismantle the American Dream and the archetypal nuclear family at its core. At the center is Carol Anne, the family’s youngest daughter. Freshly moved into a new home, paranormal entities begin to unsettle the household. Carol Anne goes missing, swept away into another realm. Her mother attempts to connect with the other dimension through the household’s electronics. Sound familiar? That's because it is. Will's frenzied mother in Stranger Things first season uses lights to communicate with her son trapped on the other side.
1 It (2017)
Aside from The Duffer Brothers, the creators of Stranger Things, intentionally plugging a few It-related Easter-eggs in the second season, the two franchises are pretty damn similar. In both, a group of boys and a token girl go face-to-face with a supernatural force. They’re often seen riding their bikes, dealing with the perils of typical burgeoning teenage problems and, at times, bickering with one another. Perhaps we’ll float one day in the Upside Down? It is a touch darker and dives further into the kids’ messy — and at times, equally horrific — home lives, which is typical for Stephen King fare. Finn Wolfhard also stars in both, which makes the connection that much stronger.