From walkie talkies and Dungeons and Dragons to The Clash and neon eyeshadow, Netflix’s latest series Stranger Things encompasses life growing up in the early 1980s.
Set in fictional small town Hawkins, Indiana in 1983, Stranger Things follows a group of kids (Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, and Lucas Sinclair) as they search for their friend Will Byers, who disappeared after riding his bike home following an exhilarating 10-hour Dungeon and Dragons board game session.
Created by The Duffer Brothers, the series pays homage to the stories and styles of 80s’ legends Steven Spielberg and John Hughes. However, it’s the elements of Stephen King-inspired horror that set this series apart from its 80s’ predecessors. The endearing 12-year-old protagonists, riding their bikes around the small Indiana town, appears almost straight out of a classic Spielberg film – something that becomes even more prominent when they find Eleven, a young girl with telekinetic abilities, who remains hidden in Mike Wheeler’s basement over the duration of the series.
Eleven’s character undoubtedly parallels Spielberg’s ET; she dons a blonde wig to cover her shaved head, is kept secret from Wheeler’s parents and is under attack by the government. The boys searching for Will on their bicycles with Eleven in tow, in disguise, directly channels ET’s Taylor family as they ride across town with ET concealed in the bicycle basket under a blanket.
There’s also a touch of John Hughes’ inspired 80s romantic magic, as Mike Wheeler’s older sister Nancy falls for “token jock” Steve Harrington, while simultaneously being drawn to “misunderstood” avid photographer Jonathan Byers, older brother of missing boy Will. Eighties music adds to Hughes’ style, as Toto’s Africa provides the cheesy soundtrack to the Hughes-style romantic tension.
In an added twist, the notable horror-inspired storyline pays tribute to the work of acclaimed author Stephen King. A faceless, multi-limbed creature haunts the town, searching for its next victim. The terrifying “something” arrived in Hawkins via a tear in an alternate dimension, a place the kids regularly refer to as “The Upside Down” through an interesting analogy involving a tightrope and a flea.
Homage to 80s films, movies and culture drive the series – the more you watch, the more links you will find to films such as Alien, ET, Gremlins and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – the tribute to this era’s pop culture is enough for anyone to become hooked on this nostalgic series. However, it’s the spooky mystery of Stranger Things which really locks in the viewers – haunted woods, invisible spirits (including missing Will) communicating through light bulbs, elasticated walls (similar to 1982 film Poltergeist) and the dark, gory side of The Upside Down.
Episode by episode, the plot thickens as Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes more and more hysterical as she tries to talk to her son through alphabetical Christmas lights – a scene that strikingly reminded me of interactions with aliens in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Winona Ryder’s emotive performance intensifies the series, demonstrating the true despair of a mother whose child is missing – similar to Jillian Guiler, when her son Barry also disappeared in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Her performance also adds to the retro aspect of the show, adding a familiar face for Gen-X viewers.
However, Ryder’s performance is often upstaged by the show’s child actors. All the youngsters – especially Millie Bobby Brown (as Eleven) – are captivating. Notable Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul even called the young star and invited her to dinner in Los Angeles after watching the show. Interestingly, Brown also seems to resemble a young Ryder, another factor adding to the show’s nostalgia factor. Twelve-year-old Brown is perfect for the role, adding a precious innocence, similar to the character of ET, as she gradually learns about friendship and “normal life” through her interactions with the young boys.
Meanwhile, the four boys’ performance is endearing. Friendship and coming of age are major themes in the series, as much as horror and mystery. Indeed, the boys’ arguments over The Hobbit and Dungeons and Dragons are engaging and the unexpected bond between the boys and Eleven, a character who is intimidating but also wonderfully innocent, portrays an image of acceptance and true friendship – a theme that is developed exceptionally well in Stranger Things.
I typically avoid ANYTHING slightly related to “horror” at all costs. I mean, I even get scared watching sci-fi show Supernatural. Yes, the suspense and shocking, gory revelations of Stranger Things definitely kept me on the edge of my seat. But no matter how scared I was, The Duffer Brothers had me hooked. I binged on this show, watching all eight episodes in just 24 hours. I was captivated by the mystery, the endearing friendships, the wonderful acting, playing “spot the 80s reference” and, of course, the brilliant soundtrack. This series may be a metaphorical love letter to the 80s and the Duffer Brothers influencers, Spielberg, Hughes and King but the show is a stand-alone success and I wholeheartedly recommend watching it.
Stranger Things ended with multiple questions unanswered, hinting at the potential for another series. Let’s hope the Duffer Brothers continue on their creepy 80s inspired cinematic path so we can continue to feast our eyes on all the strange things they have to offer. – Jessica Staveley.
Picture generated by Jessica Staveley on makeitstranger.com