“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
But is it?
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.
Other obvious film references:
Stranger Things / Under the Skin
Stranger Things / Minority Report