Recently, I have been thinking a lot about Stranger Things, a Netflix series created by the Duffer Brothers and starring Winona Ryder that I watched twice over the summer (a little bit obsessive, I know). The plot centres on best friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas as they try and find their missing friend Will in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983. Will’s disappearance is the catalyst that exposes the secrets of the town, which include government experiments, telekinetically gifted children and aliens. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, check out the trailer:
Because of my interest in postmodernism, I couldn’t help but read Stranger Things in the context of the nostalgia film, which according to Frederic Jameson, offers us a ‘return’ to history (287). In fact, James Poniewozik, writing for the New York Times, attributes the success of Stranger Things to the ‘allure of simpler, innocent times’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/arts/television/the-get-down-and-stranger-things-feed-nostalgia-with-a-historical-remix.html?_r=1). This comment agrees with Jameson’s view that the nostalgia film, or in this case, TV show, uses the past to evade the present (295). This is certainly the case with Stranger Things; its 1980s setting allows the viewer to escape mobile phones and social media and journey to a world of cassettes and VHS tapes.
It is fairly obvious that Stranger Things is a nostalgia TV show. But how does it work on a nostalgic level? I believe it is because the show plays a blatant homage to films of the 1980s that many people of my generation saw in their childhood. This is a very complex notion: not only does the viewer feel a pang of reminiscence for their own childhood, they also feel nostalgia for a time and a place they never even experienced, namely, a fictional town in America in 1983. Vera Dika articulates this concept perfectly when discussing the film American Graffiti, itself a nostalgic trip to 1950s America, by stating that the viewer feels an ‘irretrievable loss’ when looking at nostalgia films such as this (91). This blog post will basically focus on how Stranger Things injects its plot with nostalgia by relying heavily on tropes from 1980s movies, with a particular focus on Spielberg’s ET (1982).
Stranger Things is very obviously inspired by ‘80s aesthetics in general, for example, references to the work of Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas run rife in the show. However, it is quite clear that the show is particularly inspired by ET: many scenes of the series pay a direct homage to the film. An example of this is the bike scene in episode 4 of the series, which quite obviously references Spielberg’s movie.
The plot of the Netflix series is very reminiscent of ET. Both plots centre on aliens and developing friendships in the face of adversity. In Spielberg’s film, this friendship develops between ET the alien and Elliott. In Stranger Things, it is between Eleven, a young girl with special powers, and Mike. The character of Holly, Mike’s younger sister, complete with blonde pigtails and dungarees, is also aesthetically similar to Elliott’s little sister Gertie, famously played by Drew Barrymore. These subtle similarities go a long way in inviting comparisons between Stranger Things and ET, which helps create the air of nostalgia that permeates the show.
The casting of Winona Ryder also significantly boosts the nostalgia rating of the show. Because of her performances in Beetlejuice (1988) and Heathers (1988), Ryder’s name was synonymous with quirky cool at the end of the 1980s. For this reason, her casting as frantically frazzled single mother Joyce Byers gives Stranger Things an ‘iconic’ connection to the 1980s (Adams http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/stranger-things-how-netflixs-hit-resurrects-the-1980s-w429804).
It would be unfair to suggest that the show is merely a fondue pot of all things ‘80s, when in fact, Stranger Things also works extremely well as a stand-alone sci-fi/mystery show set in the 1980s. However, the show is at its best when it’s feeding our nostalgia through its homage to genre movies such as ET, The Goonies, and Firestarter.
Title Image: Netflix
Adams, Sam. “‘Stranger Things’: How Netflix’s Retro Hit Resurrects the Eighties”. Rolling Stone, 21 July 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/stranger-things-how-netflixs-hit-resurrects-the-1980s-w429804.
Dika, Vera. Recycled culture in contemporary art and film: the uses of nostalgia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
ET. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 1982. DVD.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.
Poniewozick, James. “‘The Get Down’ and ‘Stranger Things’ Feed Nostalgia With a Historical Remix”. The New York Times, 28 August 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/arts/television/the-get-down-and-stranger-things-feed-nostalgia-with-a-historical-remix.html?_r=1.
Stranger Things. Created by the Duffer Brothers. Perf. Winona Ryder. Netflix, 2016.