Remakes of vintage culture are often most satisfying when doused in a transformative energy that makes the entire package new. Great works of literature soar up from borrowed characters and plots. A brilliant reinvention of Chekhov’s The Seagull—Aaron Posner’s Stupid F***ing Bird—has recently taken the American theater by storm. Even the guilty pleasure that is Netflix’s House of Cards incorporates an overhaul: in addition to setting an older British political thriller in the United States, the creators gave the adaptation more-rounded characters.
No such ingenious alchemy is at work in the Netflix hit Stranger Things, a sci-fi/fantasy/horror series that brims with homages to 1980s entertainment. Rather than striving to recontextualize or freshen its retro inspirations, the creators allow the series to luxuriate in a comfortable bath of déjà vu. The brainchild of Matt and Ross Duffer (fun fact: they’re twins!), Stranger Things chronicles eerie happenings in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983. When a small boy disappears and there are sightings of mysterious figures near a secretive government laboratory, the town police chief (David Harbour) begins to investigate. The laboratory’s mission, he theorizes at one point, is to stay “one step ahead of the Russians.”
Also investigating are local kids Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who are determined to find their missing buddy, Will. Meanwhile, Will’s distraught mother (Winona Ryder) begins to think she can communicate with her son through her home’s electrical current, which has begun to flicker ominously. She may be losing her mind. Or she may be on to something.
As the mystery unfolds, the show’s visual details and plot points repeatedly allude to 1980s pop culture. Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin—who evoke the protagonists of the 1986 movie Stand by Me—frequently play Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that was big in the ’80s. The inscrutable girl Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), whom the bike-riding boys meet in the woods, is akin to the pint-sized loner at the center of 1982’s E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. Characters talk about Yoda—first seen in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)—and ’80s music by The Clash.
While reveling in such references, the creators of Stranger Things do a competent job of setting up the story’s central mystery, laying out clues and shivery thrills like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Making the show even more engaging are the terrific performances by the child actors, whose appeal to family audiences, as well as to viewers who grew up in the ’80s, is surely a big part of the show’s success.
Occasionally, too, there’s a hint that Stranger Things is not just recalling 1980s entertainment, but reflecting on how we use popular culture as a lens for interpreting reality. At one point, as the Hawkins boys sleuth, Dustin finds a valuable tip in his Dungeons & Dragons reference material, which contains a description of a sinister “Vale of Shadows.” But the series never builds such moments into a more robust chain of insight. Instead, it settles for many familiar story tropes, including a subplot involving school bullies, another involving a high-school clique that attracts Mike’s teenage sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and the tired conceit of a government conspiracy and cover-up.
Of course, sometimes one craves reliable, comfortable entertainment, even if it is objectively shopworn. And the ’80s setting helps make the elements of horror and suspense go down easy. We go to horror for catharsis: the displacement of current worries onto a shocker plotline that climaxes and resolves. In this case, the plot also reminds us of the Cold War, a past crisis that did not end in cataclysm. These days, we worry about hacking and cyberwarfare, not to mention terrorist-inspired or -organized rampages that can hit any part of the world at any time. Looking back, the anxieties of the Cold War era, including those of the ’80s, can seem alluringly contained.
And if I could communicate with supernatural forces through the electrical grid, I might be tempted to do so. It would sure beat associating every light bulb with global warming.