Please Ferris, don’t have another day off.
By Oliver Driver
Check the cinema listings and you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re back in the 80’s. Star Wars, Star Trek and Ghost-Busters are all on the big screen and Flash Gordon isn’t far behind. In this context, Netflix Original series Stranger Things looks right at home. In reality, the Duffer Brother’s mini-series is as alien as E.T. Far from the tepid waters of safe-bet remakes and cash-grab sequels, it’s a retreat into the warm bosom of rose-tinted past.
Stranger Things doesn’t jump on the table and rub its 80s credentials in your face. We don’t even see the predictable Rubik’s Cube cameo. It may as well not be the 80s at all, simply ‘a long, long time ago in a galaxy not far away’. What matters is that it’s not now: it’s pre-digital. Like the crackle of a record, there’s comfort to be found in the fuzzy black screen that precedes those synth opening titles. The fiber-optic streaming feels like VHS, and it feels great.
From then on, Stranger Things is laced with nods to its influences. Beginning in the stars, you’re left expecting an Imperial Cruiser to steam through the first shot, leaving a palpable feeling that you’ve seen it all before – and it’s probably because you have. Far from shying away from its predecessors, we spend our time shamelessly cycling away from the “bad men” in radioactive suits, hiding aliens in closets and walks along train tracks (a-la-Stand-By-Me.)
“There are no short cuts and no cheap shots. The roster of characters gradually reveal complexity and depth in dialogue”
Cynically, it seems like the recipe for success: cheap pop-culture shots and familiar plot lines. But that’s in a world where success is measured at the box office and Ice Age 3 comes out on top. And this is exactly the world from which Stranger Things seeks to escape: one where consumerism is omnipresent and mobile phones tether us to our stresses, like landlines to the wall. There are no short cuts and no cheap shots. The roster of characters gradually reveal complexity and depth in dialogue, rather than wandering around explaining the plot and shouting “I love Dr Pepper” (See Real Steel and 90210). Nothing is written with target audiences and marketing in mind.
Rubik's Cube: a predictable 80s pop cultural reference
The Duffer Brothers don’t take us to L.A landmarks, but idyllic Indiana suburbs – where garden gnomes go missing and the worst thing to happen was “an owl attacked Eleanor Gillespie because it thought her hair was a nest”. For the charming, carefree (if a little too familiar) gang, it’s home to Dungeons and Dragons, pillow forts and bike rides.
It’s here where the series flourishes, not in the well-rendered monsters, but the formation and interplay of unlikely, yet tender, relationships. For me, the greatest jump came at the fate of misfit Jonathan’s camera, not the faceless ‘Demigorgon’. It’s a world that feels so much simpler than today, but only because they’ve made it so. A time to which we owe so many of today’s horrors, of conflict and greed, the 80s deserves little fetishism. Much like Abraham’s Super 8, Stranger Things is a love letter to a nerdy childhood that just happened to be in the 80s.
The best art comes from love. If you loved the 80s, write that. But we don’t need nostalgia, just because it sells. If we write what sells, those reboots will keep coming. Roll on Ben Hur.