The Fine Line Between Nostalgia and Parody
Stranger Things has been sold on Steven Spielberg’s legacy but does that have anything to do with why it’s good?
I like Stranger Things a lot. But as I watch, it feels like the show is straddling the line between homage and parody when it comes to the amount of winky nods it makes to filmmakers of the 80's — Steven Spielberg in particular.
There has been more appreciation for the 70's and 80's films of Spielberg recently, something that was illuminated by J.J. Abrams and a handful of other filmmakers who consistently make use of his themes, settings and techniques. It’s hard not to think about Super 8 as I watch Stranger Things, a movie I really enjoyed at the time for a lot of the same nostalgic reasons. Spielberg had a gift for making films with children that were not just children’s movies because they took kids and their problems seriously. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, film makers eschewed realism in children’s movies and replaced it with explicitly child-ish movies just for kids, or corny teen comedies and action films.
The way Stranger Things, and Super 8 before it, handles a story that mixes children and adults, while presenting each side’s adventure and struggle with equal seriousness is quintessential Spielberg film making. The children are still children, with their limited view of the world presented as is and their natural innocence showing through without being reduced to an adorable punchline. They retain their ability to befriend a superhuman girl, who can move things with her mind and has little ability to talk, as though it were an everyday occurrence. In the lives of children, fantasy and reality are not so much separate dimensions of fact and fiction as they are the familiar and unfamiliar — and this contrasts with the adult world where fantastical elements of the show express themselves through exclusion and mental illness.
But when Stranger Things is talked about as an homage to Steven Spielberg movies, I think most people are actually referring the superficial callbacks like the 1980’s suburban setting from E.T. or the VHS-quality title sequence, or the flashlight beams and kids riding bikes, or the synth soundtrack or the quarantine suits, or the forest atmosphere or kids cussing, or even the over-contrasted visual quality of the digital photography. (Also the main kid bears a striking resemblance to the kid from Hook)
It’s like 1980’s kids films for dummies.
People watch it and say, ‘hey this is just like E.T.,’ which, when both Stranger Things and E.T. opens with a group of kids playing Dungeons and Dragons around a table, under a hanging Tiffany lamp, it’s like, of course you feel that way - they’re virtually identical.
Eighties nostalgia has had some serious staying power, influencing a lot of the fashion, music and film tastes over the past decade. Rather than passing, it seems to be re-examined regularly, displacing cheap caricature with deeper and deeper dives into the subtleties of that time period. When I was in high school, it was more about Michael Jackson, hair metal bands and John Hughes movies, hitting the obvious highlights rather than actually trying to understand what the time was like and infusing it with current culture.
In 2016 the 80's have been absorbed into everything, even other decades, existing concurrently with a 90's fashion resurgence, 60’s home decorating revival, and 50’s beat camping aesthetic trend. As a byproduct of this subtler appreciation for the decade, we have taken a more in-depth look at Spielberg’s middle-career blockbusters.
Among film buffs his influence has probably always been discussed, but it wasn’t until recently that normies like me had considered E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a distinct genre. The mainstream has long thought of Spielberg as a shorthand for a good director, but it was with serious films like Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan or, more recently, Lincoln in mind.
I know I hadn’t considered E.T., a favorite of my childhood, much of anything beside a fun kids movie and when I was 4 years old the most notable thing about it was that the VHS tape was partly green instead of all black. To me it was no different than far lesser contemporary favorites of mine like Land Before Time, Hook, or Home Alone.
And that’s my main issue with the callbacks and nostalgic imagery/fan service of Stranger Things. Without even looking it up I would have guessed that the directors, The Duffer Brothers, are probably about the same age as me. The way they interchange influences betrays that. It seems like to them, E.T. is part of the same vein as The Thing, Knightrider, Blade Runner and Hook, and maybe even Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and in doing so the visual cues do less to pay homage to Spielberg as they do to reduce his contribution to just one of the myriad of things from a late mid 80’s to early 90’s childhood. This contrasts sharply from the writing and casting of characters which is where the true strength and uniqueness of the show is. Remove those elements and the actual story is closer to an X-Files episode or Goosebumps book than Close Encounters of the Third Kind — entertaining popcorn material, but not exactly an original.
I like Stranger Things. But the more superficial aspects of the show sometimes feel like a cheap knockoff of the real thing. I’m not being transported back to 1982 but 2003 — thinking back to my high school friends, dressed like Motley Crue while they fake moon walk around the gymnasium floor and the Alien Ant Farm cover of Smooth Criminal plays over the speakers.