Netflix Original Stranger Things came as a pleasant surprise last month. A bold, heartfelt throwback to eighties pop-culture that crafted something inventive and memorable in the process. From its music to characters, it sparked feverous discussion online and proved to be an instant hit. It is, in essence, a love-letter to numerous films, books and cultural artefacts from that decade. But it’s also something much deeper. Stranger Things is a salute all those who watched such pictures; who read those comics and had their lunch money stolen as a result. It is, put simply, one for the nerds.
The series itself spans eight episodes and gravitates around the disappearance of Will Byers; a child living in eighties Indiana. Backdropped by an Area 51-style conspiracy, we see a relatively lacklustre village face an inter-dimensional monster — a Demogorgon to coin the Dungeons & Dragons phrase — terrorising its local community. This is compounded by a Cold War cover-up, namely MK Ultra to ‘Stay one step ahead of the Russians’, drawing a small-town cop into something well beyond his pay-grade. Yet beneath this, lies something far more relatable. Three young friends and a bereaved Mother trying to make sense of it all.
This mix of fantastical, if not ridiculous adventure, with tangible humanity feels familiar. It’s textbook Spielbergian adventure. It has whiffs of horror, action and sci-fi, but it’s largely a tribute to those great Hollywood adventure flicks. Indeed, Stranger Things is a cocktail of famous texts: from throwaway nods to outright pastiche. But it does so explicitly enough to remain charming in the process. Although such references deserve attention — I discuss them in due course — it’s rather the camaraderie between the boys and the escapee ‘Eleven’ that drives the show forward. It binds it with a youthful optimism that celebrates its more nuanced moments. Making Stranger Things a rather complex, but deeply satisfying blend of nostalgia and creative thought.
Breaking down the series — what works, what doesn’t and so forth — is a worthwhile exercise. Dissecting some of its ‘borrowed’ elements is a useful starting point. The most immediate example, arguably, would be that this friendship group (Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas) echo The Goonies (1985) or Stand By Me (1986) troop of outcasts. With walkie-talkies, secret pacts and an ‘us against the world’ chemistry, it works exceedingly well for both the story and its ode to older pictures. Their dilemmas, whether it be bullies, girls or games of D&D, feel real and relevant to their respective identity. Whilst not an entirely original model, it serves a purpose effectively enough. Their conjecture at high-school introduces another familiar set piece, with echoes of a John Hughes hierarchy beating down upon them. These kids are not cool, yet we invariably align with their cause. They are, at least for us, the heroes of the show.
In a similar fashion, police chief Jim Hopper’s bumbling ‘shoot-first’ approach seems remarkably similar to Harrison Ford’s famous archeologist. He is a hero, no doubt, and takes the case well into his own hands; making him a useful fist-throwing counterpart to the younger characters. His taste in headwear cements this comparison too. In addition to this, the supporting characters, whilst fulfilling their generic stereotype, (the John Hughes comparison returns) are interesting enough to deserve merit. Nancy’s jock boyfriend (Steve) and apathetic George McFly-inspired father bring a nice touch — an archetype that is eventually flipped on its head near the end of the show. Whereas Will’s older brother (Jonathan) provides a more complex and incongruous figure, whose introversion sets him apart from the rest.
Such tributes extend beyond characterisation and into the story itself. Mike harbours the escapee Eleven like Elliot does in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — with their awkward domesticity spurring laughs before the Scientists and Suits catch wind. Stranger Thing’s flirtation with the supernatural is equally familiar, when Will’s mother is contacted through a variety of haunted episodes –– from the lights in the kitchen to his old radio playing The Clash. I won’t digress into details here, but it more or less reiterates segments from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982): a film name-dropped as a picture she wants to watch with him in flashback. Moreover, in the final episode, a lab room confrontation nods to both Gremlins (1984), Jurassic Park (1993) and — at a push — Rambo: First Blood (1982). The point being, Stanger Things alludes to other films in its very genealogy. Whole sequences and shot compositions are used to tip-the-hat, too many to list, with characters often mirroring some cinema’s most iconic figures. The actual story is a concoction of well-versed texts but remains thoughtful and captivating all the same.
But note this spills-over into its surroundings, too. For every movie reference, it is propped up by semantic elements that are inexplicably ‘eighties’ as well. A useful example of this would be the poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). It hangs on the walls of the boy’s den and the very same film is later watched by their science teacher with his other half. The boys also play with a Millennium Falcon toy, discuss Atari Games and how their D&D games translate to real life. Their interests and surrounding props breath life into this periodic throwback. Eleven watches commercials for Coca-Cola and Ronald Reagan’s presidential speech, building a world through identifiable artefacts from the period. This actually goes further, Coca-Cola is used as a plot point for Eleven’s past, making it more than just a referential point about the period’s culture. But an affection for eighties media — from toys to merchandising and beyond — exists in the very arteries of this show. An affection that is bolstered by the cast and their desire to celebrate them.
Yet the overarching sentiment in Stranger Things is something much simpler. It’s about being different, not liking ‘cool’ things and struggling to fit it. It’s about non-conformity; refusing to settle down in the cul-de-sac and form a nuclear family, too. Nancy makes a rather good case of this early on, although seemingly forgoes it by settling for the ‘Jock’ in the final episode. But this all comes full circle with the heroics of the kids. Put simply, a perceivably ‘cool’ child would not deduce that Eleven is ‘channelling Will’. Nor that a portal could emerge to the ‘Upside-down’ or that we access such with a Sensory Deprivation tank. Only ‘geeky’ kids would refer to a traitor as a ‘Lando’ and want to apply science to help their friend. But all the same, such boys wouldn’t know how to dress a girl given the chance. And only they — despite their overwhelming intelligence — would think breaking into a military-grade compound is an act of common sense.
It is this very capable incompetence that develops them as heroes. It also emanates from this sense of non-conformity. It makes Stranger Things as much much a love-letter to those consuming the culture — to the weird kids themselves — than the references I’ve already discussed. Making it, once again, much richer than a simple homage. In fact, it actually becomes all the more heartwarming. When Eleven, an outcast herself, is defended as ‘our friend and she’s crazy’, their collective performance(s) becomes rather powerful. They look out for each other. Albeit Eleven forcing a bully to piss himself or merely Mike housing the escaped subject; we are cued a cheer around every corner from their compassion. It does much more than mere emotional spectacle, too. It amplifies this attitude about being different, standing up for your friends, and kicking ass in the process.
Perhaps the most pertinent example of such is between Will and Jonathan. In a brief discussion regarding his absent father’s [lack of] effort, Jonathan makes a strong case for going against the grain:
‘Has he every done anything with you that actually like? You know, like the arcade or something?’ […] ‘He’s trying to force you to like normal things. And shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to’
It’s clear that neither the Byers Brothers — nor the Duffer Brothers who penned this show — ever liked normal things. In this case, Will likes video games and Dungeons & Dragons. Jonathan, his elder brother, likes post-punk and British rock bands. These are again, semantic, recognisable traits of the eighties — but notions that translate time nevertheless. In fact, on a personal level, I resonate greatly with both figures: as a nerdy, Star Wars-collecting Mike in my childhood and a misanthropic, Clash aficionado adult. And this echoes precisely how I feel about growing up. In short, Stranger Things is about being counter-culture. To be considered weird and not ‘in’ with popular kids. Because ultimately, it is those who have the last laugh. Both in the contextual sense of rescuing Mike and saving the day — the old family-friendly resolve — but also for those who produced the show. As it is clear that the Duffer Brothers, the original nerds themselves, now hold the cards; using their ‘weird’ imagination to enchant the world.
On balance, Stranger Things is a hearty package. It’s well written over its seven or so hours and some thought should also be spared for its production values. It looks great — with timeless colour-grading throughout — and is supported by a wonderful John Carpenter inspired score. The pulsing bass-synths add the perfect ambience to the surrounding mystery. It also attains some creative editing, too. With visual symmetry between hugs at the end of episode three and a few surprising twists to indicate thematic content. Albeit cutting from the house-party door to Hopper post-sex, to cue what awaits Nancy, or the the D&D games that bookend the first and final episodes — a great amount of care has gone into the curation of this show. Equally, whilst performances have already received great acclaim — there is little I can add here — I echo the praises regarding the younger actors. They really make the series shine and exemplify the very best it has to offer.
As to its future? The ending lands some closure but leaves a number of threads open for an inevitable second helping. I am curious to see how Netflix handle the difficult sophomore season. Will’s fate seems less clear-cut and I have little doubt Eleven will return in some form. I am, however, a little conflicted as to why Nancy settles for Steve. Whilst I respect efforts to complicate the typical rebel, it did seem to set-up a blossoming Jonathan/Nancy relationship after their punch up. But such a story needed a happy ending to fulfil it’s eighties homage, so one must bury any shortcomings and look forward to what comes next. I know for a fact there is unanimous demand for Mike and Eleven to attend the fabled
Enchantment Under The Sea Snow Ball. Giving the second season a lot of room for fan-service.
Perhaps we’ll skip the ‘Earth Angel’ bit, mind.
All that aside, Stranger Things is a remarkable product of editorial creativity. And by that I mean: Netflix throwing money at daring, imaginative figures is turning out rather well. No other ‘channel’ would commission something as curve-ball as this, let alone with such a budget. Ergo, the whole show is a testament to their production prowess. It is, above all else, a lovingly made tribute to older texts that fastens something memorable of its own. It also goes well beyond nostalgia and towards a message about standing up for what you believe in. It is this sentiment that I feel drives the show and explains its contagious quality — the Strange Thing about Stranger Things have you will — that is causing so much jubilation. It’s really quite something. And it’s empirical proof that some of the oldest ideas can be the most refreshing.