‘Stranger Things’ and the Power of Nostalgia
If you’ve been disappointed by TV’s latest offerings, there is hope. Netflix’s new eight-episode series, Stranger Things, is an exciting new project that revels in the past, while offering a novel story and splendid characters.
Set in small-town Indiana, Stranger Things chronicles the supernatural, eerie events that unfold following the vanishing of a little boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). After an evening spent playing Dungeons & Dragons with his best friends (an eccentric, nerdy, and delightful band of brothers), Will disappears. As his mother and brother search frantically for him, the town sheriff and his best friends join in. A mysterious girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) also turns up, tied somehow to the inexplicable and sinister Department of Energy lab that sits broodingly nearby.
It’s a thriller and 1980s-themed masterpiece, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Richard Donner’s The Goonies, and (more recently) J.J. Abram’s Super 8. Its reverence for 1980s culture and art—especially film, music, books, and games—also reminded me of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One.
When the Netflix series first came out, Stephen King admitted he was totally addicted. This weekend, my husband and I joined the legions of hooked fans, as we followed the journey of Will’s mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and his faithful cohort of best friends—Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin)—in their quest to find Will. Ryder has (rightly) received an outpouring of accolades for her role: tender yet resolute, strong yet vulnerable. David Harbor’s troubled and brooding sheriff, Jim Hopper, is also fantastic. But without Byers’s trio of friends, the film would fall flat. They add pathos and humor to the film. Without them, it would all too easily become an eerie, depressing horror flick. With them, the film transcends mere spookiness, offering sweetness, tragedy, humor, and delight.
Beyond the (fantastic) acting, this film is made by its nostalgia and attention to detail. It is truly a homage to the 80s: the films, the board games, the music, the clothing, the food, the tv commercials, even the political paranoia (some of the Department of Energy “experiments” referred to in the film actually happened back in the day). Not to mention the wonderful retro fonts, especially the title sequence font. The Duffer brothers carefully, exactingly recreate the world of the 80s, one piece at a time.
But more than these outer accoutrements, this film reflects on a time when kids rode their bikes around town without parental concern, considering the beauty of a small community in which people know each other: where there is a shared history and context undergirding everything. As Mark Steven writes over at Tech Central,
My sense is that, in this instance, the nostalgia runs deeper than form. Stranger Things is nostalgic for a certain kind of filmmaking, certainly, but it is just as attached to something at the very heart of 80s horror: the communal ethos that comes when social outcasts join forces to face off against cosmic evil — the primitive communism of childhood friendship.
Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also—importantly—hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end.
In the past, I’ve suggested that younger people (especially millennials) crave mystery and enchantment in a largely disenchanted world. If this is true, then Stranger Things is an answer to that longing, and its success is indicative of its resonance. Despite the fact that we roll our eyes at the endless sequels and remakes that fill movie theaters these days, it’s also true that we seek films that offer us this sort of nostalgia. As Todd VanDerWeff put it for Vox, “When we say we want something ‘original,’ what we really mean is that we want something familiar, but just different enough to feel novel.”
But Stranger Things is more than just a “nostalgia fix,” as the New York Timesput it in their review. The series hints at our (very human) desire to transmit and preserve a cultural tradition, to reverence and emulate past cultural works and artistic masters. Paying homage to such a “canon” helps us make good art.
In his book Tradition, Josef Pieper wrote that “To hand down does not mean simply to give somebody something, to bring it, to share it, or deliver it. It means rather to deliver something that has previously arrived in your hands, which was consigned to you; to share something that was handed over and handed down; to hand on something that you received—so that it can be received and handed on again.”
Many of the people who watch Stranger Things will not remember the 80s, or associate any fond remembrances with the cultural tokens it offers up. And yet, by watching it, they may feel the same yearning and delight that older generations feel—the same longing for something good, resonant, “classic” in its rhythms. That yearning is a sign, I would argue, of enduring art. It makes the past meaningful and identifiable, while still proffering something new.
“Again and again there are ‘renaissances,’ which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem,” writes Pieper. “Admittedly, the usual result of such ‘rebirths’ is the unintentional creation of something completely new.” Unintentionally or no, the Duffer brothers seem to have achieved this with Stranger Things—and we hope their future seasons of the show will be just as laudable.