Warning: This contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen all of Stranger Things, read our spoiler-free review here.
These days, it’s all too tempting to retreat into a mist of nostalgia, to a simpler time when communities could come together to beat the bad guys, eradicate the monsters, and learn some valued life lessons in the process. So it’s no surprise the eight-episode Netflix series Stranger Things has been the sleeper hit of the summer.
While other films and TV shows have tried and failed to create something original with retro material, Stranger Things succeeds, because even while paying direct homage to its predecessors, the Duffer Brothers managed to create a world of its own, populated with sympathetic, three-dimensional characters. What could easily have descended into cliche – evil scientists, a girl with telekinetic powers, an alternate universe which resembles the world in the grips of a nuclear winter – instead soars into an authentic fiction with a real emotional punch, a hymn to the past that is also completely itself.
By now, you’ve probably read about the many faultless and affectionate hat-tips it pays to our shared cinematic childhood. Indeed, we outlined a few of them in our preview, so we won’t bore you by going over them all again. Sufficed to say, the show is not just a simple trip down a memory lane. There is, too, something of the postmodern about it – in riffing the output of Spielberg, Carpenter, et al., Stranger Things simultaneously comments on the world in which we live now, and not only does it acknowledge the conventions of the genres, but it also references the ways in which culture has shifted in the 30 years since its inspirations were made.
So, while Tom Cruise is a leading man of the 21st century, in Nancy’s fandom of him, we are reminded of how he was in the 20th. The posters that adorn her bedroom walls show him in his snaggly-toothed glory, the star of Risky Business. The model Millennium Falcon which El is encouraged to make fly to prove her paranormal powers is the Millennium Falcon of the 1980s, yet, with the ongoing Star Wars franchise, maintains its resonance today. While Episode 4 is called The Body – the name of the Stephen King story which the film Stand by Me is based upon – and El’s aunt directly references King while explaining El’s origin story, the author himself took to Twitter to comment:
The meta, interactive way in which past meets present is part of the show’s joy.
Just the very presence of Winona Ryder as a mother driven seemingly mad with grief over her missing son is a knowing wink to viewers, who are well aware of her real-life back story as the star of late 80s cinema, 54edbefore a long, partially enforced hiatus due to her troubled ‘reputation’. When we see her stringing up Christmas lights, painting the alphabet on her wall to create a giant, interactive ouija board, or attack her house with an axe, we know that she is not mad, but one of the few characters to fully comprehend, even from an early stage, what is really going on.
There are, too, the allusions to the ways in which times have changed in the years between when the series is set and the present. When Nancy and Jonathan are planning their monster onslaught, they head to an army surplus store to stock up on bullets, torches, petrol and bear traps. As the store clerk asks “what you kids doing with all of this?” and Nancy replies “monster hunting”, it’s hard to imagine they would get very far in our post-Columbine world. Similarly, when leaving the shop, and a passing driver shouts “Hey, Nancy, can’t wait to see your movie”, the viewer immediately envisions some kind of revenge porn. In 1983, revenge is red graffiti over a cinema hoarding. This is the slut-shaming of the early 80s, and though the method has changed, the motivation behind it hasn’t, asking questions about about the way the intervening years – and the arrival of new technologies – have corrupted our innocence.
For about six of the eight episodes, there are at least three different investigations going on simultaneously. Hopp, something of a renegade, not averse to beating people up or breaking into government facilities to uncover the truth, eventually teams up with Winona’s character. Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan join forces to investigate the disappearance of Barb (poor Barb, whom no one but Nancy seems to care about). The kids, with Eleven, are trying to find their best friend – and their leap of faith that he is still alive and trapped somewhere in ‘Upside Down’ is backed by the science their AV club tutor and all-round great guy Mr. Clarke has been patiently teaching them. It’s only when these separate investigations pool their resources and information – a testament to the value of good, old-fashioned teamwork – that they really start to make headway, and all the pieces of the puzzle come together.
The whole thing is done with a great deal of humanity and a distinct lack of 21st century meanness. Nancy’s love triangle is refreshing, because the douche-y guy reveals reserves of courage, and redeems himself. Hopp, meanwhile, finds redemption in saving Will, having being unable to save his daughter from the more tangible, ‘real life’ monster of cancer, revealed in restrained flashback.
It all ends as it began, with the boys in the basement playing Dungeons and Dragons, closer now than ever before, and Nancy’s boyfriend fully ensconced in front of the TV at her house, kitted out in a Mark Darcy-style embarrassing Christmas jumper. But not everything is tied up neatly – and it leaves the door wide open for a much-desired second season…
All episodes of Stranger Things are available exclusively on Netflix, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.