Chris Vognar: Netflix’s eight-episode first season of Stranger Things has elicited a mass nerdgasm among fans of '80s nostalgia, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons, The X-Files and other manner of cool stuff. For me, it feels like the movie Spielberg might have made if he had a little John Carpenter in him (the posters for Jaws and The Thing play helpful cameo roles). Whatever your reference point, the show has struck a chord. I’m not much of a binge watcher, but I gobbled it up like E.T. with a bag of Reese’s Pieces.
Charles Scudder: I agree, and it nailed both the heartwarming nature of E.T. or Sixteen Candles while still giving the scares of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Alien. It’s totally '80s, to be sure, but strikes an emotional cord with millennials like me the same way those old movies did. At some points it almost seemed to rely on those references a bit much, but I love how the Duffer brothers worked the familiar themes into a new, fresh narrative.
There's one scene in particular I'm thinking of that shows this. It's in the trailers so no major spoilers, but at one point, the kids are on bikes running from the bad guys. They're pedaling head on toward bad guy’s van. Just like in E.T., they'll glide safely over the barrier, right? Instead, the van flips into the air, flies over the kids and slams into the ground behind them. It's destructive, powerful and a little scary, just like Stranger Things.
Erin Booke: My favorite '80s movies (The Goonies, E.T., etc.) were all about adventurous childhoods, strong friendships (and clueless parents), and Stranger Things made me completely nostalgic for that. I hadn’t realized how much the '80s focused on exploring dark themes and sci-fi from a child’s perspective. And while science and technology were common themes then, it wasn’t like today’s constant stare-at-your-phone world. One of my favorite scenes was when Dustin called his science teacher on a Saturday night to ask how to build a sensory deprivation chamber. I thought to myself, “These days, you could just Google it, and that’s kind of a shame.” Learning from mentors, friends and through experience is always more fun for me. Don’t keep that curiosity door locked.
Christopher Wynn: As a card-carrying member of Generation X, my first reaction was: Wow, Winona Ryder is now playing a harried mother of two. Matthew Modine is now playing a silver-haired doctor. My second reaction, echoed by my colleagues here, was: I miss ’80s movies. Stranger Things has a sense of playfulness and adventure — a sense of heart — that was so integral to that decade’s most memorable films. Even darker movies such as Poltergeist shared a sense of that childlike wonder. (And, of course, I love the nod to that film when Ryder announces to her son that she has purchased two tickets for it.)
Aside from the obvious nostalgia factor, is there some other reason why projects with an ’80s pastiche seem to resonate with audiences? I heard an interview recently with indie director Ti West talking about his 2009 horror film, The House of the Devil. All of the buzz at the time was about its low-res ’80s styling, lighting and camerawork. Critics tried to ascribe all of these high-brow reasons for West’s artistic choices. In fact, he says, the story was simply set in the 1980s.
CS: There’s a lot of escapism in the culture of the '80s. Against the backdrop of Cold War anxieties and Reaganism politics, '80s pop culture seemed to create an alternate reality — on both ends of the spectrum. John Hughes crafts a feel-good teenage story with Sixteen Candles the same year Wes Craven creates a dream-invading monster in Freddy Kreuger. Those escapist tendencies don’t get old. Stranger Things, for all its Demogorgons and secretive government plots, is an uplifting story because it is able to balance both horror and hope.
CV: The kids and teens who were eating this stuff up in the '80s are now calling the shots at places like Netflix. The '80s fanboys are now entertainment executives, and they have a lot to do with what gets pumped into the entertainment atmosphere. I’ll take the probably unpopular viewpoint that the '70s was a better decade for movies. Give me Mean Streets, Chinatown, Nashville and All the President’s Men over the '80s high-gloss escapism. And get off my lawn.
That said, Stranger Things has some '70s DNA as well, particularly in its government conspiracy chills. It’s escapist paranoia, and it does what it does exceptionally well. Great characters and storytelling and scares don’t belong to any particular generation. A lot of work that pays direct homage to its predecessors feels like pastiche. Stranger Things is close to seamless.
Britton Peele: I think the idea of '70s/'80s (and in some cases even '90s) kids calling the shots is spot on. A monster like the Demogoron doesn’t happen because an old-school studio executive in a fancy suit says, “You know what really sells? Dungeons & Dragons.” That’s something that comes deep from the heart of a big, lovable (and creative) nerd. Someone that knows what it’s like to spend a late night rolling D20s with friends as you argue about what spell to cast so the party doesn’t fall to a dangerous creature.
And those were some of the parts about Stranger Things that I loved most. Dustin didn’t try to make Eleven lift just any old object with her mind. He wanted her to lift the Millennium Falcon. That’s a wonderful touch that can seem small, but it says so much about these kids with so little exposition.
CV: The good news for us is that a second season is almost assured. Stranger Things may delight in a certain innocence, but, in the end, popularity is what resonates with the shot-callers. There’s still no official announcement, but the internets are already abuzz with possible turns. Until then, we’ll see you in the upside down. And we leave you with this hip-hop tribute to Barb.