What I Like About Stranger Things

Stranger Things title gif4star 2“We never would’ve upset you if we knew you had superpowers!”

If you combine the wonder of Steven Spielberg, the dread of John Carpenter and add a heavy dose of Stephen King, then you’ve got all the ingredients of the SciFi Netflix show Stranger Things.

This 80’s nostalgic-heavy hybrid is this summer’s binge-worthy eight episode television experience involving parallel universes, telekinesis and a whole lot of references to 80s classics and culture.

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On November 6, 1983 in suburban Indiana, 12-year-old Will Byers mysteriously vanishes. Will’s mother, Joyce, frantically begins her own quest to find Will, while Police Chief Hopper begins his own investigation. The next day a mysterious girl with supernatural abilities named Eleven is found by Will’s friends and claims to know Will’s whereabouts. The closer everyone comes to the truth, the stranger things become. They’ll have to evade a government agency with their own agenda, and a sinister supernatural entity, to get Will back.

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This series hits some serious highs with it’s acting (particularly the child actors), it’s atmosphere, electronic soundtrack (I hear you, Tangerine Dream!), nostalgia and the possibility of Winona Ryder’s Winonaissance. The series even has the immaculate stamp of approval from the almighty Stephen King himself, so why do I feel so lukewarm about it?

Stephen King Stranger Things tweet

Stranger Things

USA Today summarized my reservations best,”If you want to emulate Spielberg, don’t mimic his themes; study his skill at propelling a story forward and tailoring it for its audience.”

I may have been born in the latter half of the 80s, but 80s movies are the foundation of my obsession with cinema. Movies like Stand By Me are my childhood, Aliens is my survival bible and Poltergeist is my nightmare. The greatest component of Stranger Things that lured me in was the assurance of nostalgia for my favorite decade, and it delivered.

But while I felt transported in time, the perpetual déjà vu of my favorite classics became disappointing. There were moments when I felt the kids on bikes would magically ascend into the sky while evading the government vans, or the acidic slime/symbiotic biology from the monster would elicit a cameo from Ellen Ripley herself. Imitation is the highest form of flattery; it worked for Super 8, but this felt like a carbon copy of my favorite classics instead of progressive imitation.

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Creators-writers-directors The Duffer Brothers (32-year-old twins Matt and Ross) were also children of the 90s, and, like me, spent their youth addicted to 80s classics. When they first began to discuss the idea of the show, they were immediately drawn to the paranormal-missing child storyline. From there the discussion escalated to some of the mysteries and conspiracy theories at the end of the Cold War; when rumored projects like MKUltra were concluding.

“The subgenre of children coming in contact [with] and facing off against a terrifying supernatural force is my favorite subgenre in the world, and there’s actually not that much of it. It’s like Stephen King’s It, Dan Simmons’ Summer Of Night, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. I think there’s an absence of that generally, specifically things starring kids that are not children’s movies. When we were kids we watched Stand By Me and I loved Stand By Me, but that was not a movie that was made for kids. I like that kids are going to watch this, but that it’s not meant for them. It makes it much cooler.

We were just talking about, ‘Why did we love all this stuff growing up? What was it?’ The simple answer is that it’s generally about very ordinary people, whether it’s family or whatnot, coming into contact with something extraordinary. Whether that’s The Shining or E.T., that’s sort of what connects those stories. We were like, “Can we go back to that style of storytelling?” Ross Duffer/Matt Duffer via AV Club

The directors made a bold move by casting the queen of the 80’s herself, Winona Ryder, in early production. Resurrected from what seems like obscurity, Ryder brings as much punch and mania to her performance of the mother of the missing boy. But despite the overwhelming outpour of praise for Ryder by critics (I thought her performance was the weakest of the bunch), the real MVP here is the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). With a shaved head like Ripley, and a youthful innocence like Newt, Eleven may be this year’s Furiosa.

Millie Bobby Brown Stranger Things

Stranger Things is steeped in 80’s nostalgia so much that you feel like you’re watching a VHS classic. Millie Bobby Brown explains that she was told to watch Poltergeist, Stand By Me and The Goonies prior to filming. The young actors even auditioned with lines from the script of Stand By Me to encapsulate the mood and genre. “It’s very independent. It resembles other movies, but it’s not those movies. It’s completely different.”

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Poltergeist

But is it?

aliens 1986 victim

Aliens

Despite my qualms with the overabundance of copyrighted nostalgia, the Duffer brothers accomplished a great feat–they got me to watch a television series. This feat is a rarity and seldom gets accomplished with high marks, but the Duffer brothers did television justice.

“We grew up movie guys. It’s not like we didn’t watch shows like X-Files and stuff, but our heart was in movies. That’s what we fell in love with, and that’s what we wanted to do with our lives. I remember seeing the trailer for the first season of True Detective, and what Cary Fukunaga was doing with that, and what Steven Soderbergh was doing with The Knick, and it felt like there was this new generation of filmmakers—not just writers, filmmakers—pushing television into new territory. There was the potential to tell an original story, and not just something that’s purely based on character and dialogue, but also based on the visual.” via AV Club 

What I need to appreciate is that Stranger Things could become a favorite for a new generation; kids who haven’t seen Close Encounters or Halloween or Alien. Or it could give a younger generation the desire to explore the classics of the VHS generation.

For adults like myself, Stranger Things does well at accurately capturing a sense of nostalgia that is almost forgotten, but the homage feels more like an imitation of the authentic films it’s trying to recreate.

Stranger Things gif

Other obvious film references: 

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 Stranger Things / Under the Skin

Stranger Things / Minority Report 

Barb Stranger Things

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31 thoughts on “What I Like About Stranger Things

  1. I’m gonna send your review to my colleague who’s just asking me about this series. I should watch this just to see the 80s references 🙂

  2. I’m planning on watching this, so I skimmed this post just to avoid spoilers but I love the visual parallels you included! I’ve heard such great things about this.

    • I wrote this spoiler-free, but definitely check back when you watch it! I’d love to read your review of it. It’s unanimously loved by bloggers! Been waiting to read more from the blogosphere, but it appears I’m the first to write about it.

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  4. Hey Courtney, just popped over to read this after reading your comment. Very well reasoned, and the quotes that you pulled were insightful as well. I suppose this is purely subjective, and therefore difficult to evidence in a review, but I simply found the Duffer brothers approached their influences and STRANGER THINGS honestly, rather than with any intent of manipulative nostalgic string-pulling. Again, totally understand and appreciate your take on it (and I could be totally blinded by my own adoration of all of the films/novels they wear on their sleeve).

  5. This review is perfect. It’s like you’re in my head! We also have the exact same favorite films from our youth (Stand By Me & Aliens remain my two most-watched movies from my pre & early teens). I really enjoyed Stranger Things & appreciate its obvious love for the 80s. It’ll never be an all-time favorite, though, in the way that actual films/TV from the 80s are for me. Hubby & I would sometimes joke that the Duffer Brothers clearly had a little “80s checklist” they worked off of. Playing Dungeons & Dragons? Check. Kids on bikes like in E.T.? Check. Yes, it’s one of the only TV shows that I’ve watched all the way through in recent years, though, so I’m still a sucker for that retro feel. And score. : ) (Loving Freaks And Geeks too, though! Finally just now discovering that show). Anyway – great review! You’ve said exactly what I feel. : )

  6. Completely agree with you! Enjoyed it and it was nice to see something so 80s but I’m definitely with you on not absolutely loving it. Great review!

  7. Now that I’ve got my 30-day free trial of Netflix I better get this watched given my love of 80s films. I am however a little put-off by your criticism that it feels more like a copy of the films we love rather than an original piece of drama. That might not be a bad thing as I might like the nostalgia but similarly it might remind me of great films and why they’re so good over “average” TV.

    • I think because I’m such an 80s fan, that I may have been a little overly critical looking back at this post. Definitely check it out, and I’ll look forward to your review if you write one!

      • Watched it all in about three days. Thoroughly enjoyed it and found the references/nostalgia enhanced my enjoyment of it. Not it was perfect – I didn’t like the subplot involving the sister and he relationship with the school jock (however, I did like how they kept his character from being one-dimensional). The need to create ambiguity for a second season is detrimental to overall series too. But these are minor quibbles. The last episode was terrific and I loved how the three-pronged investigation brings three groups of characters together for the final showdown.

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