There’s a consensus about Stranger Things that everyone reviewing the show on the internet has somehow magically come to: a Spielberg/Stephen King, 80’s homage to genre entertainment. It’s a decent description for the show, but a bit of a generalization.
There are a number of tropes pulled from 80’s movies: bikes, bike lights, forests, flashlights, guys in hazmat suits, monsters pushing through walls, sibling troubles, parent troubles, sister’s wet-blanket friend, overweight curly-haired funny friend, douchey cool guy, and sketchy government agencies. Also, the Duffer Brothers brought Winona Rider back from her post-80’s/90’s fall from fame.
The story is set in 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana, where the US Department of Energy has a bureau, and begins with a group of young, nerdy boys playing Dungeons & Dragons at Mike’s house. Afterward, the boys hop on their bikes to ride home- like a bunch of Goonies- but friend Will disappears.
The day after Will goes missing a strange young girl shows up at a local diner and we quickly find out that she has powers. Later, Mike and his two friends find the girl in the woods while looking for Will. They take her back to Mike’s house so she can hide. Mike decides to call her El when he sees the number eleven tattooed on her arm.
The show is a coming of age story for multiple characters, besides the young boys and El, Mike’s older sister Nancy, who is discovering womanhood and boys and finding her independence.
I read Ready Player One a while back and, though very different (being that they’re set almost 100 years apart), Stranger Things reminds me of Ernest Cline’s novel. Both share a smattering of 80’s nostalgia. While I don’t think tugging at the heart strings of our childhood selves is the only reason the show has found popularity, it has a lot to do with it. There’s just something about watching pre-cellphone kids hopping on their bikes, using walkie-talkies, and fighting forces of evil that makes generation-nostalgia freak out. At least, I do when I see anything that reminds me of my favorite movies as a kid.
To really get a sense of the Duffer Brother’s inspiration, check out this supercut of shot for shot comparisons by Ulysse Thevenon:
E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of a Third Kind are some of my favorite movies of all time. Movies that inspired me to become a filmmaker and expanded my curiosity of the universe beyond Earth. I know I’m not alone in that. The Duffer Brothers put together a series that shamelessly knits together their inspiration. And they’ve pretty much put the cards on the table, essentially saying, Yeah, we’re making a show that pulls from our childhood favorites.
While all the 80’s inspiration and nostalgia is great, what goes overlooked amid all the hype is the narrative complexity and weaving together of several sub-plots that make up the story. In a way it feels like there’s two or three different stories going on, that somehow merged into one.
First of all, there’s US Department of Energy. Eleven’s mother was used in government-issued psychedelic drug testing, which somehow resulted in Eleven having mind powers. Then, the Department of Energy did experiments on Eleven, which resulted in her finding a parallel universe that’s covered in fungus and has monsters, called the Upside Down. Eleven accidentally opened a portal between our world and the Upside Down, which Will gets lost in.
So yeah, that’s kind of a lot of things, but somehow it all works together. Plus it’s a coming of age story, set in the 80’s. I guess the Duffer Brother’s just went all out.
Overall, the show was pretty great and proved that you can let nostalgia be your guide as a storyteller. The Duffer Brother’s knew what they like and, with Stranger Things, they did it their way.