Destroy All Monsters: In the Blind Land of Nostalgia, STRANGER THINGS Is King
As I've mentioned before, the best movie of the summer wasn't a movie; it was an 8-part Netflix serial about kids hanging out in the '80s, caught (unbeknownst to them) in the plot of a Steven Spielberg movie. In a summer where an actual Steven Spielberg movie couldn't compete with Stranger Things, we've officially entered Remix Culture.
I have no problem with Remix Culture, if it's done well; but then, I turn 40 next week, and as I wrote in last week's column, I'm aware that the best I can hope for is to watch modern pop culture feed on the pop culture I was brought up on, as one generation passes to the next. It's all one big circle of life anyway: the fertile period that Star Wars gave rise to in the '80s was built on a decade of movie brats remixing the films of the '30s and '40s. And Star Wars itself will remain the remix champ of all time, pop culturally.
Stranger Things falls down around character depth and development, which is why some discerning palettes might see it as little more than a collection of nostalgia objects. There's no great, overwhelming lack driving Mike (the extraordinarily-named Finn Wolfhard) from episodes 1 to 8, besides the fact that one of his friends has gone missing. If you were to note that the four boys conclude the season in almost exactly the same spots - physically and temperamentally - in which we find them at the series' beginning, you would be correct. You could cut from the first D&D match to the last and barely notice the change of clothes.
I believe this is intentional. Stranger Things' interests are more in the mechanics of plot (borrowing from Stephen King) and the pleasures of aesthetic. Both categories are, on their own terms, exceptional; they are also like intravenous injections of nostalgic bliss. The series' content and time period, obviously, help: if you saw E.T. in theatres, were freaked out by the spheres in Phantasm, owned Kenner's Millennium Falcon, had a Dark Crystal poster, or a friend with no teeth, you are going to be bathing in nostalgic bliss from pretty much frame one.
But beyond these, there's the simple recreation of a visual universe that has disappeared into the background of how we conceive and display stories. As Jonathan and Nancy grab their monster-hunting gear out of the trunk of his car, we might notice a floodlit cloud of mist just hanging in the middle distance beyond, the sort of thing cinematographers used to have to generate in order to create depth of field in night scenes, which has gone the way of the dodo in the era of digital capture.
Stranger Things is captured digitally, but it doesn't give a fuck; it understands that celluloid dreams (and nightmares) came from an era of specificity, in which every single element of a frame was a hard-won choice. If you wanted your small town to seem spooky at night (rather than an all-black canvas of nothing), you damn well had to get mist.
Likewise, the Duffer Brothers know how to drop a camera to nearly ground level and shoot up into their diminutive leads, as the boys race through their neighbourhood on dirt bikes, headlamps flickering. Bikes are important. (Chief Hopper even says so, a few episodes in, to underline the point - the bikes are like Cadillacs to these kids... though perhaps Ferraris would have been the better analogy. Hop's a bit of a fuddy-duddy.)
Bikes, of course, form the crucial image system of the film from which Stranger Things borrows the most of its cues, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and receive their most direct homage in the series' seventh episode, where the child cast attempts to evade their government pursuers on bikes -- though here, instead of making the bikes fly to escape the G-men, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a super-powered tween weapon, flips the attackers' van into the air to clear the road. The effect is as deliberate as it is sincere. If in E.T., the eponymous character's powers of telepathic flight made for two of the most celebrated sequences of wonder in cinema history, in Eleven's case, the message is simply (as Mike's friend Dustin might put it), don't mess with Eleven, she's awesome.
There are two divergent threads here:
The first is Eleven herself, as a character and an icon. She is very much both, as consciously designed to join the latter camp as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She's powered, the key to unlocking the mystery around which Stranger Things revolves. She's a survivor of significant abuse at the hands of patriarchal oppressors.
The specifics aren't sketched in any great detail, though the consistent flashbacks to Eleven in an ungainly wetsuit being subjected to experiments in an underground government lab, place the character in a realm of visual vulnerability that is only balanced out by the aforementioned iconic aspect: bald as a cue-ball and dressed in various appropriated clothes, her brow furrowed just so as she unmans bullies, slaughters stormtroopers, and makes little boys fly, Eleven is this year's Furiosa. (Entirely appropriate, given that the Charlize Theron character's look was reportedly the grease the Duffers' needed to convince Brown to shave her head.)
She's also this story's E.T. character, however, her adorability bona-fides established by a parallel fondness for a particularly '80s junk food (Eggos instead of Reese's Pieces) and a winsome need to be looked after. This is the second thread: Eleven as a character we only access in association with Mike, the male lead.
This, unavoidably, she is. I commented earlier that Mike doesn't have a single character-specific lack that the events of Stranger Things help him solve... but that doesn't mean he's adverse to the significant bonus of having a girlfriend who can hurt people with her mind. In the Mike/Eleven binary, the series tends to centralize Mike and react to Eleven as the new/cool/weird thing, rather than the other way around; even though, arguably, she's the only one of the five pre-adolescent characters with an actual arc, journey, and story to tell.
Stranger Things isn't a particularly gendered story, except by default. Joyce (Winona Ryder) might be top of the credits and one of the whole series' three principal characters, but she is defined by her motherhood above all, and to the exclusion of all else. Mike, meanwhile, isn't particularly deserving of the hero status the series avails him, other than that he seems like a generally decent kid, who takes Eleven in for (initially) largely unselfish reasons, and defends her personhood from friends he has known longer. That this is eventually strengthened by her potential to help him find Will, and by Mike's burgeoning crush on "the weirdo," sours the characterization.
But as I've said, Mike has no personal problem in need of solving - even his bullying at school doesn't seem to be much of a factor in his life (though Eleven takes care of that, too - and repeatedly). In E.T., as has been described far and wide, Elliott is going through his parents' divorce and E.T. represents an ideal platonic companion/pet. Eleven, on the other hand, is genderized (if not quite sexualized) immediately, by a trio of boys who do not yet have an awareness of females as anything other than an undesirable other. This is in direct opposition to the fact that on a visual level, Eleven is intentionally de-gendered, and is mistaken for a boy more than once. The actual boys don't care: she's not like them, and that's enough to other her.
Mike eventually asks Eleven to the school dance, but until he does so, we haven't even heard of the dance, and it's wholly possible Mike hasn't ever thought of it either. It's as though, now that a girl has entered his orbit, Mike simply accepts that heterosocialization is the next move in the game - and hey, this girl has superpowers. So she's clearly the best one.
I'm aware that Stranger Things exists in a very particular nostalgic fantasia. It's the '80s, but the '80s as a politically correct teenager of the '90s would have reverse-engineered it. Racial tension does not apparently exist, and there is a black character fully assimilated among the whites without comment. (It, with which Stranger Things is frequently compared, is relatively a racial encyclopedia in its diagramming of how a minority of black families in a small American town would be understood in the context of 1980s white people.)
Gender-based harassment, too, is confined to a spectacular display of slut-shaming of Mike's older sister, but which is immediately used as a pivot upon which to separate the "good" characters from the irretrievably douchey ones. But then, women in the story are generally mothers, secretaries, or Barb, so there isn't much disruption of gender roles against which the dudebros can react, until Nancy dares to have a (platonic?) male friend. There are no gay characters either (that we know of), but no one is called a "fag" if they aren't considered manly enough.
In other words: as anything other than a wish fulfilment comic book written by people looking back on the pop culture of the 1980s with rose-coloured glasses, Stranger Things is total horseshit.
But that's exactly what it's meant to be, I suppose, and why it has attracted such a wide and adoring fanbase. Nostalgia doesn't really work when complex ambiguities and real-world tensions muddy the frame. And yet for all its whitewashing, or perhaps because of it, few projects have felt more "2016" to me than this one, in both its aspirations and its failings. Stranger Things is a very precise, very clean cross-section of where pop culture is now. As a generic exercise, it's the best playlist around. The silence between songs, though, is telling.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.