A common criticism of modern Hollywood is its obsession with the past – an increasing reliance on remakes, reboots and sequels at the expense of original ideas. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” turns the conventional wisdom on its head – it’s a sophisticated and layered homage to 1980s pop culture that is as thoroughly enjoyable as it is unoriginal.
Created by Matt and Ross Duffer, twin brothers highly versed in the conventions of 80s sci-fi and horror that they grew up on, the show centres around the inhabitants of Hawkins, Indiana, whose lives are thrown into chaos after the mysterious disappearance of local kid, Will Byers.
From there it’s a story of love, loss and friendship set amidst a backdrop of supernatural scares and sci-fi tropes as Will’s friends and family fight to uncover the secrets of a government program gone awry that will help them save him.
The breakout stars come in the form of Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), who leads the charge in the search for his friend Will and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the runaway test subject of the secret government program that provides much of the show’s dramatic heft. Their burgeoning relationship best captures the coming-of-age theme that is so synonymous with 80s pop culture and is here portrayed with genuine sensitivity.
Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown in Netflix’s Stranger Things
It’s notable how little of “Stranger Things” is truly original – from its dynamic typeset opening credits to chaptered episode structure, the show lives and breathes its 80s influences. The show draws heavily from the likes of E.T., Twin Peaks, the works of Stephen King and the films of John Carpenter and wears its influences plainly on its sleeve, as J.J. Abrams did in his 2011 surprise hit “Super 8”.
It’s simultaneously ironic and unironic – ironic in its knowing nods to various 80s cultural touchstones and unironic as an authentic celebration of the same influences. From the heavy-drinking Chief of Police to the sleepy small town setting, secret government project, grieving single mum, nerdy D&D-playing kids and the cute, studious girl-next-door who falls for the cool kid, the list of tropes it draws on is nearly endless but are all handled with such care and craft that they feel oddly revelatory.
The nods extend beyond simple plot and character beats, as the show borrows liberally from the filmic conventions of the era. It’s packed with the type of energetic tracking shots and dramatically slow zooms that defined 80s filmmaking and give “Stranger Things” a truly cinematic feel. Even the addition of digital film grain in post-production to place the show firmly in its period seems less a cynical bastardisation of 80s pop culture than a loving homage to an era
The soundtrack is peppered with instantly recognisable hits from the likes of Toto and the Clash and a synth-laden score that could feasibly have come from any of Carpenter’s filmography. The use of music and sound were pivotal to the success of original 80s horror and they’re used to similarly great effect here as a way to ratchet up the tension and play up the show’s supernatural overtones.
All in all, it’s hard to think of a recent TV series that has so quickly tapped into the current cultural zeitgeist by channelling the past, yet ‘Stranger Things” accomplishes it with gusto. It’s a lesson that Hollywood should quickly heed – nostalgia is a powerful drawcard as long as it’s handled with love and genuine passion and not as a cynical exercise in the power of brand recognition.