et me take you back to a time long ago, an idyllic time when your local multiplex was rife with movies about kids getting caught up in wild, scary, dangerous adventures; when kids were free to be obnoxious and curse at each other; when parents put their kids to bed and went back to their bedrooms to smoke pot; when getting caught up in a government conspiracy and being chased by men in suits with guns was par for the course; and when all of that was rated PG.
I’m speaking, of course, about the early ’80s. So much of culture today is a giant nostalgia trip, with properties from our childhoods, like Ghostbusters and Pete’s Dragon, being resurrected to satiate the need to escape back to when we were young, before we had any real responsibilities. It’s been going on for years now, and hot on the heels of this apparently never ending trend is Netflix’s great new original series, Stranger Things.
Brought to us by The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross), Stranger Things, is an eight-episode pastiche of early ’80s Spielberg movies, Stephen King adaptations, and a little superficial John Carpenter stylings to finish it off. Set in small-town Indiana in 1983, Stranger Things tells the tale of a young boy who goes missing and his friends and family uncovering a terrifying mystery to bring him back. The series has all the hallmarks of your favorite Amblin Entertainment movies: the kids on bikes, the blue lens flares, the weird sci-fi elements, the creeping terror. It’s not by accident that by minute five of the show you’ve already caught homages to E.T., Poltergeist, and Halloween. Stranger Things, much like J.J. Abrams’ 2011 film, Super 8, is an overt piece of nostalgia for everything early ’80s. It’s also why sites like Vulture have already published lists of every film referenced by the show.
Of course, endless references, a Carpenter-inspired synth score, and the triumphant return of Winona Ryder are hardly enough to rest eight hours of television on. Where Stranger Things succeeds, even beyond its cool central mystery and intricate plotting, is in how it deals with the children at its core. The show’s central characters are four young boys: nerdy kids who play Dungeons and Dragons in the basement and think kissing girls is gross. They ride bikes around town and communicate with each other on walkie-talkies and get picked on by psychopathic bullies. One of them has an older sister who’s secretly dating the popular bad boy, and having sex for the first time while her geeky best friend waits outside to get snatched by a monster from another dimension. These kids say “shit,” they call each other “douchebag,” they talk over each other constantly, and hide as much as possible from their parents. Much like the kids in E.T. or The Goonies, these are kids who push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, all while approaching the dangers of the world with open curiosity and reckless abandon. You know—a lot like real kids.
Stranger Things‘ appeal rests largely on this version of childhood, familiar to us from real life, as well as from old films that imagined what real kids would do in truly fantastical and scary situations. The scariness is key. Remember when Steven Spielberg digitally altered E.T., turning all the guns into walkie-talkies? The outcry was enormous, not because he dared to alter a classic, but because the very grave image of kids facing off against police with rifles felt intrinsically true to life. The guns were a perfect representation of the cruelty and peril of the adult world encroaching on children who don’t even know they’re not supposed to be equipped to deal with it. It’s a feeling that children identify with, and which adults understand intuitively, though it may alarm them. The Duffer Brothers understand it, too, and with Stranger Thingsthey’ve pushed it right to the edge without falling over.
In the show, the three boys discover a young girl who barely speaks. She’s on the run from a government agency willing to kill people just to find her. She’s also got telekinetic powers that allow her to move large objects and break people’s necks with relative ease. Over the course of the series, she kills quite a few people. In other scenes, kids are chased down by men in vans, threatened by other kids with knives, and, in some cases, even killed. Asked by Variety about the high level of danger and violence, the Duffer Brothers admit it was all in the plan: “‘Really dark Amblin’ was our original pitch. We wanted to push things further than, say, E.T., so it didn’t feel completely safe.”
Back in the early ’80s, most movies dealing with kids in scary situations were rated PG. After Poltergeist and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scared millions of children half to death, parents demanded a new intermediate rating between PG and R. The MPAA gifted us the PG-13, and in the decades since, it has completely realigned expectations for the content of major blockbusters. PG-13 became the four-quadrant standard-bearer. Where PG movies of the past could have a kid scream “shit” or call his brother “penis breath,” PG-13 movies today rarely push in that direction. They’re often violent, sure, but bloodless, sexless, and any real sense of danger is lost in a sea digital fantasy.
Meanwhile, kids’ movies have been relegated to the PG and G-rated world of computer animated films. Only fantasy fare like the Harry Potter series come close to what the kids movies of the ’80s offered, but without those older films’ realistic setting. Everything is at a safe remove these days. “Think of the children,” we demanded, and Hollywood responded by making sure nothing on our screens could really hurt them again.
Stranger Things, through the great freedom now provided by television, and by shamelessly mining ’80s classics, has brought back a more real and relatable representation of childhood. Despite being an old way of telling kids stories, it’s been so long out of fashion that seeing it again doesn’t just tickle our collective nostalgia, it’s actually just straight up refreshing. Stranger Things re-captures something we had lost to time, gives it back to us in a new, but familiar, way, and reminds us of the very real reasons we loved those old films in the first place. Much more than the superficial stylistic homages, it’s the kids that make it great.