Stranger Things: 80s Films Redux
by Dennis Greene
The enormous number of big-budget, high quality original TV series being produced by HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and others makes it tough for even committed pop culture junkies to keep up. I didn’t become aware of Netflix’s science fiction-horror thriller Stranger Things until more than a year after Season 2 was released in October, 2017. But the story is so compelling that it was easy for an old retired guy like me, after golf season, to binge watch all 17 one-hour episodes in a week or two.
The first season, set in the early 1980s, focuses on the unexplained disappearance of Will Byers, a young boy in fictional Hawkins, Indiana. Will’s hysterical mother Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, and her high school friend Jim Hopper, now the local Police Chief played by David Harbour, organize a search for the missing boy. But the main focus of the series is on Will’s small group of geeky, Dungeons and Dragons playing middle school age friends Michael, Lucas and Dustin, who are joined by a mysterious young girl with strange powers. Together, they begin their own investigation into their friend’s disappearance.
The relationships among this group of science and fantasy-oriented sleuths reminded me of Elliot and his friends in E.T. or the boys in Stand By Me. In many ways, the group was also similar to the young Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts. While facing unspeakable and overpowering evil and observing occurrences beyond the scope of human understanding, the boys also worry about who has a crush on whom, what Halloween costume to wear, who will be Dr. Venkman, and if they have packed enough snack food as they set off to battle monsters from a parallel dimension. The story includes the usual secret and sinister government project, the complex social life of the boys’ older siblings, dysfunctional family relationships, lots of slimy and repulsive monsters in dark and forbidding places, a wonderful science teacher, several deaths and enough references to Newtonian and theoretical physics, telekinesis, and psychology to keep the story grounded in reality. The series is so well written and directed, and the cast is so talented, that I found myself really caring about a score of characters.
Certainly Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Will, and their new friend El (for “Eleven”) are at the top of that list. Each heroic in his or her own way. Most of these kids are new faces, but Dustin, played by Gaten Matarazzo, will probably look familiar. He is a younger version of the curly haired, precocious boy who now preaches the benefits of Fios in Verizon’s current TV ads. This ensemble won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance in a Drama Series in 2016. The series also received 31 Emmy Award and four Golden Globe nominations.
The series was created and written by twins Matt and Ross Duffer, known as the Duffer Brothers. They pitched the script to about fifteen cable networks who all rejected it because the plot centered around children as leading characters and would not appeal to older viewers. Suggestions were made to make it a children’s series or drop the kids and concentrate on the sheriff’s investigation of the paranormal. But the Duffers, believing in what they had created, teamed with Shawn Levy and successfully sold it to Netflix for an undisclosed amount.
The series has been greatly influenced by, and pays homage to, the great science fiction and horror films of the 1980s. To pitch the film, the Duffer Brothers showcased images, footage, and music from films like E.T, Close Encounters, Poltergeist, Stand By Me, Nightmare on Elm Street, Jaws, and Alien. It offers both a riveting and charming story in its own right, but it also provides nostalgic reminders of those captivating sci-fi and horror films we have enjoyed over the past three decades. The Duffers have clearly paid homage to Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Steven King, and Wes Craven. And I consider that a good thing.
I suspect this show isn’t for everyone. It’s best if you are a fifteen-year-old science fiction or fantasy fan or can still suspend your disbelief to think and feel like one. If you enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A Wrinkle in Time, Stand By Me or The Golden Compass, or if you are a Steven King fan, you will probably enjoy Stranger Things. If you read all of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones, I’m sure you will enjoy it.
We are presented with so many rich characters in this story that everyone should be able to identify with at least a few of the central characters and hopefully experience the adventure with them. That’s what makes speculative fiction fun.
The character I most identified with was Dustin. In Episode 6 of the first season, Lucas leaves the group in anger after a fight with Mike, and Dustin attempts to convince Mike to find Lucas and reconcile:
Dustin: “This is weird without Lucas.”
Mike: “He should have shaken my hand.”
Dustin: “He’s just jealous.”
Mike: “What are you talking about?”
Dustin: “Sometimes your total obliviousness blows my mind. He’s your best friend, right?”
Mike: “Yeah, I mean, I don’t know.”
Dustin: “It’s fine. I get it. I didn’t get here until fourth grade. He had the advantage of living next door. But none of that matters. What matters is, he is your best friend, and then this girl shows up and starts living in your basement, and all you want to do is pay attention to her.”
Mike: “That’s not true.”
Dustin: “Yes it is. And you know it, and he knows it. But no one says anything until you two start punching and yelling at each other like goblins with intelligence scores of zero. Now everything is weird.”
Mike: “He is not my best friend.”
Dustin: “Yeah, right.”
Mike: “He is, but so are you, and so is Will.”
Dustin: “You can’t have more than one best friend.”
Mike: “Says who?”
Dustin: “Says logic.”
Mike: “Blow your logic, because you are my best friend too.”
Dustin: “O. K.”
I was the new kid who moved to town in the middle of third grade after all the “best friend” slots were filled. After 60 years, it still bothers me a little. This passage made me both admire Dustin and also feel sorry for him.
Season 4 has already been filmed and is expected to be released some time next summer, so you have plenty of time to catch up on the first three seasons before then.
Welcome to Hawkins, Indiana–if you dare!
Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.