Hey Hollywood, ‘Stranger Things’ is How You Do Nostalgia Right

Stranger Things is a marvelous experience for anyone who grew up devouring Stephen King’s early works, for anyone who adored the supernatural Spielberg and 80s kids movies; it’s nostalgia to the nth degree. And, there’s references aplenty to more recent works for the younger crowd. But, at the same time, in all its homage and callback gory, Stranger Things still manages to be something wholly unique. The Duffer Brothers’ story is full of fresh characters, great performances, and a whip-smart balance of horror, comedy, and thrills.

It’s the sort of story Hollywood should take note of, and ditch their reboot culture.

Hollywood is so terrified of new entities and original properties in their summer blockbuster slate, where they make pretty much all the money for their entire year, that they insist on dumping increasingly lackluster sequels and reboots on us. Quantity over quality. This year, however, it seems the returns might be diminishing enough for studio fat cats to rethink their boring plan. Ninja Turtles 2, ID4-2, Tarzan… pretty much anything without the gold-stamped “Marvel” or “Pixar” label has been met with mediocre reviews and middling box-office numbers. Even Star Trek Beyond, easily the best of the three films in the franchise reboot, underperformed compared to the other two. Ghostbusters is mildly successful (it has a long way to go to make up that budget), but the movie itself is just okay.

Rebooting and remaking existing properties has been a successful template for a long time. It unearths all those feels for the 25-50 crowd, adults who have kids now (and, more importantly, money) and want nothing more than to share the things they once loved with their children. Reboots and remakes and sequels also require little to no brain power these days; just throw together a screenplay, hire some stars, and voila! All the money! So we get reboots of Poltergeist, a “prequel” to The Thing, a new Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, and so on and so forth.

But maybe audiences are tiring of these reboots and sequels enough that studios will take more than a sideways glance at the success of #StrangerThings. It’s another Netflix hit, and it succeeds on two levels that would seem impossible to fit within the same narrative structure: nostalgia and originality.

This isn’t a remake of E.T., or Poltergeist, or Alien, but it has elements of all those in its bones. And Firestarter, and Close Encounters, and dozens of other films and stories from our past. Part of the fun watching Mike, Dustin, and Lucas work with Elle, Chief Hopper, and Joyce Byers to find the missing Will Myers, all the while fending off evil government entities – led by a creepy silver-haired Matthew Modine – is spotting all the references. You spot the E.T. callbacks and the Firestarter/Carrie mashups and you smile, but at the same time you’re engaged in a story that’s all its own. That’s where it differs from Hollywood’s big-budget tentpoles; it creatively stokes our nostalgic fires. It respects its audience.

Take Ghostbusters, for example. The women are great, and the story…okay? But the cameos from the original cast members are all lackluster, and they’re obvious attempts to shoehorn characters from our childhood into a new movie with no real motivation other than having audiences say “Hey! It’s Bill Murray!” Did you see Dan Aykroyd as the cab driver? That was… forced, wasn’t it?

Stranger Things manages to challenge us to find the Easter Eggs rather than just throwing them at the screen with no rhyme or reason. Spotting Evil Dead posters in the bedrooms, perking up at the sound of a pop song, or trying to nail each and every nostalgic callback works like a game within the story. It energizes viewers, it engages them further into the plot, but it’s not all there is to it. In the midst of all the callbacks, there is a honest to goodness original story with original characters. They’re inspired by past characters, but the actors – from Winona Ryder to David Harbour, and all the kids at the core – bring fresh perspective. It’s challenging, and fun, and not for one second does the viewer drift off in between references, waiting for the nest Stephen King nugget or Dan O’Bannon name reference.

Hollywood will continue to reboot and remake existing properties into oblivion, make no mistake. But perhaps Stranger Things will get to at least one studio exec in charge of these tentpoles, and they will try to ape off the success of this in a fresh new way. Doing what Stranger Things has done in 8 episodes is not easy; mixing nostalgia and original storytelling takes time, and effort. And that might be where studios lose their focus.

Just redoing Poltergeist is much easier.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.