STRANGER THINGS isn't perfect, but then again, what is? (Other than a proper cocktail, Sasha Banks and Cleveland.) But it is quite good. Another example of streaming service content changing our entertainment landscape, STRANGER THINGS has caught fire this summer. Everyone is talking about the Duffer brothers’ love letter to Stephen King, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, and how it hits that nostalgia sweet spot. And there is no mistaking it, STRANGER THINGS does just that. It manages to give us the feeling of watching something old and comfortable without just being something old and comfortable. In a climate where old properties are being remade, sequel-ed and re-imagined to death and back, it shows us how to pay homage, to revel in the nostalgia without just revisiting the same properties over and over.
Let's talk about remakes/sequels/prequels/re-imaginings for a while, shall we? It's easy to not like remakes. It's easy to talk about how they are never as good as the original, how they “ruined your childhood” and how they are all just callous money grabs that try to cash in on your nostalgia. While this is true for the most part, there are remakes out there that are as good, if not better than the originals. John Carpenter’s THE THING, for example. There are also sequels that achieve this same thing, most recently MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. What a good remake/sequel does is use the original work as a jumping off point, and then tells a unique and interesting story of its own. These examples are few and far between, granted, but they are out there. There are intriguing but pointless remakes, such as Gus Van Sant's 1998 PSYCHO. An almost pure shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's classic, it's an interesting exercise in filmmaking, but by its own design it is ultimately unnecessary. There are films that manage to be both sequel and remake at the same time. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is basically A NEW HOPE, retold but in continuity. It's a bit strange. EVIL DEAD 2, although one of my favorites, is another example. It mentions the original, takes a shift in tone, yet tells essentially the same story. It manages to pull it off because of the tonal shift, and how it leaves itself open for ARMY OF DARKNESS. However, the vast majority of remakes/sequels fail to achieve much of anything, aside from resurrecting a property to see if it's got anything of merit left to squeeze out.
However poorly or well executed, a sequel or remake is just more of the same. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can be an unexciting thing. Remakes and sequels give us that nostalgia pop we love so much, seeing those characters onscreen again, being part of that world one more time. And yet, that feeling of nostalgia and familiarity can be achieved without just retreading the same old properties over and over again. STRANGER THINGS manages to do just that.
First, we have the setting. STRANGER THINGS takes place in small town Indiana. Anywheresville, USA. It's where I grew up. It's where so many of us grew up. It's the where, but also of the when. STRANGER THINGS takes place in 1983. It's far enough in the past to feel like a different time, but it's a different time when those of us in middle age were alive. We remember being kids—that feeling of infinite freedom and possibility. It also takes place in the fall, the most nostalgic time of year, at least for me. It conjures images of back to school, the smell of leaves, Halloween masks, crisp mornings and chilly nights.
But, it is also a 1983 that comes from the movies, books, music and television of that era. The Duffer Brothers themselves were born in 1986, so they didn't experience the 1980's, not in any real sense. They have a nostalgia for an era that didn't really exist, a setting that is idealized. That is the thing about nostalgia, though. All the worst things fade away, washed in that rose tint of rear viewing glasses. That, however, is perfect for a story. If all we remember are the most idealized parts, when the bad things happen they are that much more effective. It breaks our pleasant little bubble of nostalgia and makes the horrible things that much more jarring. Effectively pulling elements from their favorite stories, the Duffer Brothers manage to create a world we find comfortable and familiar, yet presents us with new unknowns. STRANGER THINGS is heavily influenced by Stephen King's IT, an influence it proudly displays. It also takes elements from E.T., THE GOONIES, STAND BY ME, ALIENS, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, among numerous others. From plot threads cribbed from their favorite works, the Duffer Brothers give us a new story, with new surprises, new characters, new mysteries, new triumphs and new tragedies.
STRANGER THINGS takes cues from its favorites visually as well. The Duffer Brothers recreate numerous scenes from those films, right down to the shots themselves. As I am sure you have seen, there are even side by side comparisons showing some of the parallels people have found.
Those influences extend right down to the title animations, where they use that Stephen King typeset that was used for so many of the Signet paperbacks released in the mid 1980's. Those visual cues set us, sometimes subconsciously, more firmly in the world of STRANGER THINGS. It lets us fill in gaps ourselves, our minds building the universe backward from our personal favorite movies and books, along with our real life experiences.
A universe isn't complete without music, and STRANGER THINGS delivers there as well. Sure, there are the recognizable hits peppered throughout, but where it really shines is in the score. Austin-based band Survive is channeling their inner John Carpenter, creating a synth-heavy, dark, creepy atmosphere. Another way to interject something new while still maintaining the nostalgic, retro feel, the soundtrack and score add the depth any well-constructed narrative needs.
STRANGER THINGS isn't without its flaws. It does tend to wallow a bit in the nostalgia for the era, getting some things wrong, looking back a bit too fondly on others. For every Clash or Joy Division song, the 80's had hundreds of Phil Collins or Eddie Rabbit or Steve Miller songs. There are a few blatant references that feel forced, as if the Duffer Brothers were jumping up and down with a neon sign, really excited for you to notice. (Looking at you, movie posters and Stephen King books.) But all of these are just tiny gripes and I'll forgive those and quite a lot more for a story that isn't just a remake or a sequel. STRANGER THINGS manages to give us something new and exciting while acknowledging and referencing something old, familiar and comfortable. It scratches that nostalgia itch in a deeply satisfying way, more so than any number of unnecessary rehashes.
The critical success and fan appreciation of STRANGER THINGS may be a turning point for visual narrative. The huge budget studio affairs are relying more and more on existing content, whether it be movies or comics or books, creating sequels or adaptations of established successful properties. But STRANGER THINGS is another successful venture by streaming services in creation of unique and new content. Just as in the late 70's and early 80's VHS began to change not only the ways that we viewed content but also the ways it was created, streaming services are changing them again. We're entering a new era, and if STRANGER THINGS is any representation, I am looking forward to what comes next.