Netflix’s retro-themed thrillride couldn’t be more 80s if it had its own tie-in breakfast cereal – and we can’t tear ourselves away
As someone who was alive and just barely sentient through the most part of the 1980s, sitting down to watch Stranger Things has been weird for me.
On the one hand, the Netflix show, a knowingly retro supernatural drama that’s had the internet doing the truffle shuffle with delight these past few weeks, is a virtual Greatest Hits of the decade I grew up in. Its tale of telekinesis, imperilled school kids and shady government experiments is an inspired mash-up of The Goonies, Stand by Me, Poltergeist, The Breakfast Club, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and any other reference you care to look up in the thousands of listicles already published online. I mean, really. It’s all there. The ‘but Mom!’ brattiness of the kids. Family mealtimes with kicks under the table. The comically callous school bullies (“Step right up and get your tickets to the freakshow!”). Suburbia under attack. Government drones in A-team surveillance vans. Within minutes of starting the first episode, I was as rapt as Sean Astin’s Goonie feasting his eyes on the treasure of One-Eyed Willie for the first time.
On the other hand, doesn’t all this feel a bit… contrived? Look again at the list of films above. These aren’t the films of someone’s 80s childhood. They’re the films of everyone’s 80s childhood. Throw in some walkie talkies, chopper bikes and a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons nerd stuff used as a plot device, and the whole thing starts to feel distressingly like a BuzzFeed article come to life (“You Know You’re a Child of the 80s When...”). Likewise, the music can be a bit relentlessly on-point – shot of someone walking away in a moment of high emotion? Cue Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” (“Don’t walk awaaaaay, in silence”) before the character decides not to walk away. Donnie Darko used Echo & The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” for its own 80s-referencing soundtrack? No problem, we’ll use the next best track off the album, “Nocturnal Me”, instead! (OK, that last point is a bit snobby.)
For all the nods to the Spielbergian 80s, it’s Stranger Things’ original soundtrack, a darkly pulsating affair composed by Austin duo Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, that points up the programme’s true spiritual forebears. In recent years, we’ve had a glut of films harking back with varying degrees of explicitness to the 80s, more often than not assisted by a lurid synth score. There was Nic Winding Refn’s breakout Drive, rendered unforgettable by Cliff Martinez’s achingly retro OST. A few years later, Adam Wingard’s The Guest made similarly great use of a soundtrack that drew heavily on hits from the old-school and also, signifcantly, a pair of tracks by SURVIVE, AKA Stranger Things’ Dixon and Stein. And last year’s standout horror It Follows boasted a superb, John Carpenter-esque soundtrack from Disasterpiece. Factor in other 80s-minded recent fare like JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens and Super-8, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, and Ti West’s The House of the Devil, and you have a thriving sub-genre in its own right (The Force Awakens feels especially instructive in its return to the no-frills paciness of the original Star Wars trilogy).
How to account for this trend? Chalk it up to a generation of eternally delayed adolescents, perhaps, yearning for an era which, thanks to an odd mix of Spielbergian sentiment, Reaganite family values and baby-boomer materialism, contrived to make kids the stars of their own (heavily merchandised) adventure. In any case, what unites all of these films, beyond the surface style and occasionally postmodern nods to the past, is a commitment to telling their stories right. And that’s what ultimately makes Stranger Things the appointment viewing it’s quickly become. Sure, its glut of references will light up your nostalgic pleasure nodes like a Tron pinball machine on tilt, but the Duffer brothers’ show is just as concerned with the tones and textures of 80s storytelling as it is with shrieking, ‘Hey! Remember calculator watches?’ in your face every two minutes (though there’s definitely a bit of that).
What that means in practice is an insistence on bold, simple narratives, characters that stray just the right side of cliché (Jim Hopper, David Harbour’s Backwoods Police Chief With a Past, is especially good, while young Brit actress Millie Bobby Brown is magnetic as Elle, a 12-year-old girl with telekinetic powers), and dialogue that walks a vanishingly thin line between clunky and clever (“Missing kid, suicide… you must feel like a big-city cop again, huh chief?” says Hopper’s dim-witted sergeant to his boss at a crime scene. “Well, I mostly dealt with strangers back then,” he replies. “Benny was my friend.”) Best of all, the show doles out scares and laughs in just the right measure, and it doesn’t rely on postmodern winks to do so: “Just wait till we tell Will that Jennifer Hayes was crying at his funeral,” goes one zinger from the adorkable Dustin, a mouthy tween in a Pepsi cola-coloured baseball cap. (Incidentally, the most ‘meta’ moment comes when Elle succeeds in levitating the holy grail – or should that be lost ark? – of 80s toys, the Millennium Falcon, a bit like Master Yoda does with an X-wing in The Empire Strikes… oh, never mind.)
What else? Well, it definitely doesn’t hurt having Winona Ryder, looking like she’s just been defrosted from a cryogenic time capsule made in the mid-90s, in your cast list. Plus, ‘The Upside Down’ is a fantastic name for a dark, shadowy netherworld filled with monsters. Watching Stranger Things, hankering to return to an 80s American childhood that was never really ours, we might suggest another one: 2016.