Like a lot of people – at least half the known universe, going by the amount of buzz online – I spent a sizeable chunk of last weekend binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s hugely successful series Stranger Things. It didn’t take me long to remember why I’m fond of it. The utterly endearing young cast; the Spielbergian largesse and Dante-esque splatter; the comfort of familiar, trope-laced storylines thrillingly combined with the distress of watching kids confront supernatural dread.
I remembered other things, too: including a world I never really grew up in, and a past that never really happened. How good is Stranger Things? In a sense it is hard to say, given the shameless nostalgia-mongering engineered by creators the Duffer brothers, and a team of writers and directors, who expertly manipulate the mist of our memories. The new Stranger Things is the latest retro head trip to do considerably more than take audiences for a spin down memory lane.
My favourite scene in the recent Blade Runner 2049 (minor spoilers to follow) depicts a confrontation between Harrison Ford, playing the scruffy old replicant killer, and Ryan Gosling, playing the sleek new one. They engage in a round of fisticuffs as a faulty hologram program projects the ghosts of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe onto a stage behind them, these pop culture deities flickering like beautiful, broken records. How much more nostalgic can you get?
Quite a lot, as the new series of Stranger Things reminds us (as did the first, but focus here will remain on the second). An early shot in the opening episode shows a cinema marquee advertising The Terminator. We soon find ourselves at a video game arcade, where electronic neon signs advertise games such as Pacman. Inside, we learn a top score achieved by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has been beaten by a player named MADMAX. One of the first images of troubled mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is of her sewing a Ghostbusters logo onto a shirt.
“There’s the genius of Stranger Things: a show machine-tooled to take you to a space full of ‘me toos’, where we are naturally receptive to its messages.”
And on and on we go. Stranger Things is based in the 1980s, so it is hardly inappropriate to lace the show with 80s references. The Duffers’ approach, however, goes well beyond merely the provision of period details.
In addition to the above there are other, more essential nostalgia-twigging elements worthy of mention. These include the casting of Sean Astin and Winona Ryder; the pulsating synth score and soundtrack of 80s hits; the throwbacks to B movies and creature features; the storytelling DNA of old school Stephen King and Steven Spielberg baked into the experience.
During one moment around a dinner table, Michael (Finn Wolfhard) is told off by his father, who asks him: “If your friend jumps off a cliff, you’re gonna jump too?” The viewer’s intuitive mental response to a line like that is: hey, I’ve heard that too! Possibly many times. And there’s the genius of Stranger Things: a show machine-tooled to take you to a space full of ‘me toos’, where we are naturally receptive to its messages.
It is hardly the first film or television series to shamelessly and/or brilliantly and/or entertainingly manipulate our relationship with nostalgia in a fun, frothy, wink-wink way. Director Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a striking example, terrifically clever in retro-meets-contemporary conjuring of tone, story, characters, aesthetic. Last Action Hero, from around the same period (released five years later) is another interesting example.
“There are really only two kinds of movies and TV shows: the ones we watch and the ones we remember.”
More recently, J.J. Abrams masterfully tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The more I think about it, the more I feel that film was overpraised (by myself and others) at the time of its release. A good, solid, entertaining movie: absolutely. But considering how Xeroxed the storyline is, how devoid of risks and imagination, how uninterested Abrams was to take us anywhere substantially different… Put that overpraise down to how cleverly the film counters its flaws by playing with our familiarity of its brand. By messing with our memories.
People tend to categorise film and television content by applying different genre labels: action, comedy, science fiction, etcetera. But when you get down to it, there are really only two kinds of movies and TV shows: the ones we watch and the ones we remember. The genius of Stranger Things is that it takes us to some place in between. Somewhere sort of old and sort of new. A world we never really lived in, and a past that never really happened.
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