Damn, just when you thought ’80s nostalgia wore out your welcome, Netflix’s Stranger Things gives you another reason to rue the absence of ’80s punk mixtapes and trapper keepers.
Raise your hand if you were born in the ’80s. And hey, I don’t mean 1989. Go over there and talk about how great Twister or Ace Ventura was.
“Alrighty then”, now that we have the requisite audience in the room: Say howdy to my ’80s Nostalgia Support Group! Welcome back to a time where sterility-inducing smartphones, engorged Outlook inboxes and the rabid, dense cacophony of social media weren’t the bane of our late thirtysomething existence. Where the din of the Information Superhighway didn’t drown out the quiet hush of pastel suburban skies and awkward, shoulder-padded hopes and dreams. Hey! Look over yonder, children were required to use their imagination to pass the time (cue Dungeons & Dragons, stage left), their curious gaze free of cascading touch screens and the cool glow of Pokemon Go tinting their apathetic faces. And if you liked a girl, well, you wrote her a handwritten (no, hand-crafted) note. Or, God forbid, manned up and gave her home landline a call and politely asked her distrusting, bespectacled dad if you could speak to the apple of his eye (“sorry for the late hour, sir”), just a spoken misstep away from pissing your pants.
Stranger Things is almost structured like a written novella
Stranger Things, broken up into eight captivating chapters by the Duffer Brothers, is — in your humble narrator’s opinion — the best piece of escapism Netflix has produced yet. And I’m not saying that because I’m the perfect demographic for ’80s bric-a-brac. Stranger Things is a tautly assembled, cohesive vision that seamlessly solders together painstakingly authentic homages to the trifecta of quintessential ’80s sci-fi horror auteurs — namely John Carpenter (They Live, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), Steven Spielberg (E.T., Goonies, Poltergeist), and none-other-than the king of high strangeness himself, Stephen King (Carrie, It, Salem’s Lot). In short, if you’ve yet to exhume this curio from the backlog of your Netflix queue, cancel your weekend plans.
We follow the disappearance of a young boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), in a nondescript American suburb in 1983. As a result, his frantic mother, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder); the town’s police chief (David Harbour); and Will’s Goonies-esque cadre of friends must face terrifying, extradimensional odds to rescue him. While Will is the driving force behind the motives of each character in the series, it’s the mysterious local research facility escapee, Eleven (played with subdued, pitch-perfect fragility by the adorable Millie Bobby Brown), that gives the core of the entire story a sense of wonder and purpose. Poised as a thematic human counterpart to the alien in E.T., Eleven is overwhelmingly unfamiliar with everyday suburbia, cautiously chewing the newness of mundane life with a charming palate of novelty (she develops a passion for waffles, for instance).
Eleven degrees of broken innocence
Her fragility is the heartbreaking result of a childhood deferred by MKUltra programming and unscrupulous parascientists. In lieu of this fragility, Eleven possesses devastating abilities that, paired with an under-reared sense of moral awareness, make her deadly. This, in fact, is where the true “scares” and “horror” lie in Stranger Things: Eleven’s extreme naivete with the value of human life, notwithstanding the consummate malevolence of her CIA-funded stalkers. Yet, what instills an even more palpable sense of unease is the inescapable schadenfreude you feel as you watch Eleven adroitly dispose of her enemies — with her mind, no less. I say no more.
Interestingly, as the most recent episode of the SlashFilm Podcast cited in their review of the series: the kids are stuck in a Steven Spielberg movie; the adults in a Stephen King novel; and the teenagers in a John Carpenter film. These are, ostensibly, the horror-Americana tropes that inspired Ross and Matt Duffer. So, if you feel a bit lightheaded from the mercurial tone of the series, you are not alone. At times, we’re enamored with the “P.G.”-wonder of Eleven’s budding friendship with her new neighborhood friends, yet unnerved by the “R-rated” monster that hunts and dismembers unwitting neighborhood residents.
Tonality crisis: Spielberg vs Carpenter vs King
Now, on paper, the divided “tonality” of this eight-chapter script is (technically) problematic. So it’s no wonder that Stranger Things was, according to this article by Rolling Stone, rejected more than a dozen times before being picked up by Netflix:
Matt estimates the brothers were rejected 15 to 20 times by various networks, while other execs had balked at the idea that the show featured four kids as lead characters but that it wasn’t TV for children. “You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper [detective] character investigating paranormal activity around town,” one told them. Matt recalls replying, “Then we lose everything interesting about the show.” Some other people they knew in the industry understood their vision and helped connect them with Netflix. “There was a week where we were like, ‘This isn’t going to work because people don’t get it,'” Matt says.
Despite these odds, the Duffer brothers managed to pull it off, with a vintage electronic, Carpenter-esque chillwave score to boot. Just listen to that swell of applause from our ’80s Nostalgia Support Group.
Don’t get me wrong, this show isn’t perfect. Winona Ryder’s performance is overwrought and under-cooked. It isn’t entirely her fault, either. Unfortunately, the script dials her in at “maximum manic” from the very beginning. This makes it difficult to feel the weight of her white-knuckled grief and lonesome faith. Imagine the impact her character arc might have had had the Duffer brothers drafted her story with more subtlety. What if, for instance, the Duffer bros put Joyce Byer’s sanity into question? What if it wasn’t so obvious and predictable that Joyce was right about Will being alive? What if she scrutinized her own sanity to the penultimate point of insanity? She would have been a much more interesting character had her “hysterical faith” been the result of an actual psychological and spiritual journey (an arc that simmered to a boil), rather than “just because”.
Flicker once for “yes” and twice for “no”
Nevertheless, what saves Ryder’s erratic portrayal of Joyce is the motif behind Will’s nether-dimensional ability to communicate to her via the medium of electricity, that is, the lights in her house (you’ll never look at Christmas lights the same way). That’s got to hurt her utility bills. Thankfully, this adds a mitigating layer of intrigue to her side of the plot that almost nullifies the problems I had with her performance.
Stranger Things is not just a paint-by-numbers recreation of American life in ’80s suburbia (I’m looking at you, Super 8), it has an almost ineffable way of taking me back to a time of spooky childhood larks and the buzzing wonder that inebriated my head as I ventured into the dark corners of my neighborhood on a rickety bike and a posse friends (wherever they may be now). These are dark places that scratch at the membrane that separates our world from the preternatural other that lies beyond.
And therein lies our timeless cautionary tale. Something children instinctively understand far better than adults ever could. Simply put, as Stephen King once wrote in It: “Don’t fuck with the infinite.”
Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix. Check out the extended cut of its vintage electronic theme here (careful, it’s a synthtastic earworm):