Nostalgia Porn has become an actual thing over the past couple of years. With more and more of us looking back to the golden 80s, some wise-guy had to give the notion a label that made it sound bad and made us all feel dirty for indulging. Admittedly there does seem to be more of it around than ever. Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One – a novel based on 80s pop culture references – is now being made into a movie by Spielberg himself, John Carpenter has released two new albums featuring his signature brand of synth loveliness, and new directors like Adam Wingard and David Sandberg are utilising 80s style and settings in their movies to create an aesthetic that is both icy cool and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.
You could say that this influx was partially heralded by JJ Abrams’ Super 8 back in 2011. Though there has always been a huge outpouring of love for the Amblin movies of my youth, the world all seemed to connect to it together when Super 8 hit cinemas, and it created a divide between those who lapped it up and those who saw it as a path to ruin.
Since then it’s as if we’ve needed something to come along and hit every single 80s nostalgia button on the head; to cover all the bases of story, aesthetic, music, tone and straight up homage so that we can drench ourselves in the shower of 80s goodness whilst getting something new that satisfies our needs as a contemporary audience.
Enter the Netflix series Stranger Things. Set in a small town (check) in 1983 (check) and featuring a bunch of plucky young geeky kids (check) who play Dungeons and Dragons (check) and use Walkie Talkies (check) whilst riding Choppers (check) and get involved in a government conspiracy (check) when one of them disappears to a nether realm (check) and the rest have to hide a strange otherworldly child (check) with secret powers (check), Stranger Things doesn’t just wear it’s influences on its sleeve, it positively rams them down the audiences throat with unashamed obviousness. There’s even an opportunity for the show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, to use their favourite 80s movies as a method by which to advance their own story. At one point Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) offers her son tickets to see Poltergeist in a flashback, whilst in the present he has been abducted by an unexplained entity and is still able to communicate through white noise devices and by screaming for help as if trapped within the walls of the house itself. It’s a fun homage and a way to give even more to its target demographic by allowing them the luxury of identifying a reference whilst also delivering a new plot beat.
There’s visual homages to Stand By Me, ET, The Monster Squad and if that wasn’t enough the children’s bedrooms are peppered with posters for classics such as Evil Dead and The Thing, each of which has some bearing on what is happening in this story.
The short answer is a resounding yes. At just 8 episodes the series feels close to a movie, and its story has enough interesting threads and subplots to keep the momentum going. There’s some frustrating moments where it feels like the characters are repeating themselves just so that the creators can wring a bit more running time out of the thing. Winona Ryder gets the short straw here. After her son disappears she becomes this crazed lunatic, who gets unhinged about so many things that it is impossible for anybody to believe her theories about what has actually happened. The longer this goes on the more irritating it becomes, until Ryder’s presence on screen by four episodes in just means more sobbing and yelling at people.
There’s also a problem in the early episodes with how the script reaches and reveals its story beats. Though the happenings are all believable and are executed with a strong directorial style, it feels a bit painted by numbers. The moments in which we are supposed to be emotional become instead moments that we recognise as something that should be sad, but doesn’t actually feel that way. It elicits more of an “aww” than a flood of tears and an “oh God no!” That said by the time we hit episode six and start the wind up to the climax, this is long forgotten and we are instead swept away by the trials of the characters and their predicaments. All the threads are brought together beautifully and there is a final showdown that is gorgeous and outrageously tense at the same time.
For many people that’s exactly what Stranger Things will be. And so what if it is. At the end of the day the 80s were the golden age of cinema for millions of people, so what’s so bad about paying homage to it? Some might say the danger is that we expend too much effort on trying to bring that time period back to life, instead of moving on and doing new things, but I think there’s plenty of room for both. After all, there’s still a great deal of films/shows that look much further back (Downton Abbey, Poldark etc.) and are lauded for doing so. They call them period pieces, and it’s meant as a prestige title. So when does the 80s stop being a useless trip into nostalgia, and start being period cinema?
The key point is that Stranger Things captures the 80s authentically. It isn’t just a cheap copy of what came before, but a lovingly crafted, expertly made piece of 80s cinema (in TV form) which doesn’t just remind us of our love for the past, but transports us there.