It's back to the Reagan era and smalltown America in the new sci-fi epic from Netflix. Ed Power binges on the Winona Ryder-starring Stranger Things.
It's nostalgia Jim, but not as we know it. Actually, make that nostalgia Steve. With Netflix's new binge juggernaut Stranger Things, newcomer writer-directors the Duffer brothers pay unabashed homage to the two Stevens/Stephens who loomed over early '80s popular culture: Spielberg and King. The setting is an archetypal American small town deep in the Reagan era. A lumbering monster has escaped a shadowy government facility, a young kid has disappeared on his way home from playing Dungeons and Dragons, and his divorced single mom is trying to hold it all together. If that sounds like a mash-up of Salem's Lot, ET, Close Encounters and Stand By Me... well congratulations, you've won this round of 'Spot The Reference'.
But what truly seals the deal for anyone old enough to have blubbed their way to bedtime after seeing ET for the first time is the casting of (swooooon) '90s mega-crush Winona Ryder as mom-against-the world Joyce. Excuse us while we pick ourselves off the floor. "They were very clear from the beginning that they wanted this to be - and this is their words - a love letter to the '80s movies that they loved and that inspired them and made them want to be directors," Ryder said of working with the Duffer brothers in a recent IGN interview. "And there's a fine line between homage and then just stealing stuff. But from what I've seen it really does feel like an homage rather than, 'Oh, hey. this is in right now.'"
Casting Ryder was key, say the Duffers, who, as children of the '90s, see her as the quintessential screen icon: simultaneously glamorous and quirky, exotic but oh-so girl-next-door.
"She was the first idea from our casting director for any role," Matt Duffer told Mens' Journal. "And we fell in love with it. Because we grew up, at least in the theatres, watching early '90s stuff. So we were steeped in a lot of her films, and they're staple parts of our VHS collection.
"We really missed movies with Winona Ryder, and I knew that I would be excited if I saw that coming out in the show. I think we hit her at just the right time. Two years ago, even, I don't think she would have done television, but when Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson jumped to True Detective, they really opened the doors for other actors, major movie stars, to want to do TV."
"Nostalgia" is practically a pejorative nowadays. Who isn't fed up reading about the 20th anniversary of the Spice Girls (they were terrible then and will be terrible when their Posh-less reunion comes together), or why everything was better before smartphones? (Dude, you can throw yours away any time). However, Stranger Things knows what it is about and, amid the Spielberg-isms (with nods, too, to Wes Craven and John Carpenter), weaves a compelling tale.
"We were the last generation to grow up without cellphones and texting, and we're probably the last to have that kind of experience. If we were going to hang out, it would literally be with our friend next door," Ross Duffer said in the same interview. "Everything took so much longer to organise. So I think there is something exciting to that, that this neighbourhood was your little town, and your friends there were just a part of your town, and you would go off on these adventures. That's probably a little bit lost now because everyone is talking all the time and just instantly connected."
The show is the perfect comeback vehicle for Ryder. Somehow she is only 44 - remarkable if you consider her becoming a global darling in the late '80s. And she's perfect as a single mother struggling to hold it all together: unglamorous and honest in her exhaustion and slow-born desperation. By the end of phase one of her mega-stardom (circa her eclipse by the showy Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted), Hollywood didn't really know what to do with its most unconventional A-lister. Here, Ryder connects completely with the material: somehow - and you're going to have to trust me on this - the struggles of a beaten-down woman in early middle age are more believable because it's Winona Ryder.
"She's not a perfect person. She's not a perfect mother," she said to IGN. "And I was always very influenced and loved movies like and I'm not comparing them at all but - but Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and movies about single moms that were really struggling. That always had a big impact on me even though my parents are still together and I came from a loving, stable home."
Netflix has big hopes for Stranger Things. You can appreciate why the streaming network would invest so much into the series. While House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black have established it in premium drama, genre is clearly a niche Netflix can drill deeper into.
"They don't let you know the ratings," the Duffers said in May. "They tell you if they are happy with the results, obviously. But they're not hung up on it being a huge hit from the outset. If the show didn't do amazingly in the first two days that is totally irrelevant. What really matters is long-term. They aren't trying to get blockbuster openings. Short-term isn't important at all."
Season one of Stranger Things is on Netflix now.
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