Saturday, August 13, 2016

More 80’s Than the 80’s: Stranger Things and My Totally 80’s Nostalgia-thon

Maybe it’s because 2016 has been pretty depressing so far – even our summer movies have been underwhelming.  Maybe it’s because I’m only several weeks shy of my 40th birthday.  Maybe it’s because I just watched Stranger Things.  For whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a lot of 80’s nostalgia lately.

The Sublime Bodaciousness of Being an 80's Kid

I’m a genuine 80’s kid.  I never stopped loving Arnold Schwarzenegger’s one-liners from “I’ll be back” to “Consider that a divorce” (see a comprehensive list here).   Growing up with sci-fi and fantasy movies like ET, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, Gremlins, The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Labyrinth, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Back to the Future made my childhood a magical time.  I still learn lessons from GI Joe and He-Man

As a kid I may not have completely understood more grownup films like Bladerunner, The Terminator, The Road Warrior, Aliens, and Enemy Mine, but I understood more than I was supposed to and was indelibly shaped by these films.  Sillier movies like Star Trek IV, They Live, and most especially Spaceballs taught me not to take life too seriously.  I will never renounce the view that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is the most excellent Keanu Reeves film of ours or any time.  

I suppose everyone loves the pop culture of their childhood, but I honestly feel a bit sorry for people who weren’t 80’s kids.

Two Categories of 80's Nostalgia

There are two categories of 80’s nostalgia: stuff that was actually produced in the 80’s and stuff that’s been produced more recently, mostly within the last 10-15 years.   The first category is what I've gone through recently when I watched Escape from New York (making a prison out of a place with today's Manhattan real estate values is unbelievable, but the movie is fun) and The Running Man (some of Arnold's best one liners!).  I've also read the book version of The Running Man (one of Stephen King's Bachmann books that has nothing to do with the movie and isn't very good - see my review) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (one of my mom's favorite books in the 80's).

This second category of 80's nostalgia is, like all retro movements, truer to nostalgia than fact.  It’s more 80’s than the 80’s.  It’s hyper-80’s.  I call it More-Eighties-Than-Eighties or METE.  The METE aesthetic has been a noticeable force in recent years in music, film, and television.  If the success of Stranger Things is any indication, we will be seeing a lot more of it in the near future.

I’ve always had at least a small tincture of 80’s nostalgia.  Nonetheless, my latest outbreak is particularly virulent.  It probably started several months ago when I beheld the bodaciously gnarly retrofuturism of Kung Fury (see the trailer below).

I've also been getting into Synthwave, an entire musical genre dedicated to the construction of synth-fueled, John Carpenter-worshipping monuments to 80’s nostalgia.  Some of my favorite bands are Power Glove, Futurecop!, and especially GUNSHIP (see their awesome video for “Tech Noir” below, with a cameo from John Carpenter himself).

Stranger Things

My 80’s nostalgia became a full-blown epidemic upon watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, which is the best thing I've seen in months, and heard, too -- the soundtrack is amazing!  As Jon Negroni has written, it's the best movie of the summer, which says something about how good a TV show it is and how bad most of our summer movies have been (I liked Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond was okay, but the rest of Hollywood's science fiction and fantasy offerings have been thoroughly atrocious this summer).

If you're in any way a fan of 80's science fiction and fantasy movies and you haven't seen Stranger Things yet, do yourself a favor: fire up your Netflix account (or get one) and watch this show.  If you need convincing, see this trailer.

The miracle of Stranger Things is that it feels like the 80's without feeling derivative.  The Duffer Brothers tell a compelling and unique story within the More-Eighties-Than-Eighties aesthetic, although it's a great deal more subtle than something like Kung Fury; it just kind of is the 80's in Stranger Things.

The acting performances are all great, especially from Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown.  The mood is wistful, emotional, or eerie appropriate to the situation.  There's some real science fictional horror going on (despite how the series has been billed, there's nothing supernatural per se, just Lovecraftian).  Nerds rejoice!  The whole thing starts and ends with a group of friends playing Dungeons & Dragons.  And did I mention that soundtrack?  The one I'm listening to as I write this?  Amazing.

Stranger Ideas: Other Worlds and the Dangers of Nostalgia

There's a lot more going on in Stranger Things than I can write about here.  I need to watch it again to catch everything.  But two philosophical issues stand out for me: the existence of other worlds and the dangers of nostalgia.

I don't want to give too many spoilers, but fans of Lewisian modal realism and the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics might enjoy Stranger Things.  Do other worlds/universes/dimensions exist?  Is there a world in which I never started this blog?  Is there a world in which you didn't read it?  Is there a world where none of your favorite celebrities died (RIP Kenny Baker...) and no innocent people were killed in 2016?  Is there a world where the summer blockbusters of 2016 were all actually good?  Is there a world where it's the 80's forever?  

If these other worlds do exist, could we travel to them?  Would we want to, especially considering what Stranger Things warns we might find in one of those worlds?  Are a lot of time travel stories really about travel to alternative worlds, as I argued in this post on Terminator Genisys?

Nostalgia is in some sense the desire to travel to another world, at least for a little while.  The weirdness of nostalgia is that it's the desire is to go to a particular world as you imagine it more than as it actually was.

This is normally innocuous enough.  I completely and unapologetically love Stranger Things, and I'll be the first to admit that its nostalgic hues are a big part of that.  

But it's worth keeping in mind that Stranger Things imagines an 80's that never was.  Besides certain nerdy inaccuracies about D&D rules or when pop songs were released, there's something odd about an 80's with very little visible racism or homophobia (perhaps a bit of sexism is demonstrated in how people react to Joyce Byers as a single mother).  It's easy to get caught up in the awesomeness of Stranger Things while forgetting that the 80's were also the decade of Reaganism and Thatcherism, trickle down economics, increases in homelessness and crime, white flight from urban cores to the suburbs ... and this is even before mentioning the godawful fashion trends of the decade and the fact that we didn't have cool things like smart phones and blogs (although I sometimes honestly miss the pre-smart phone, pre-internet world: there was more time to think).  

As magical as my childhood pop culture experience was, I have to remember that the 80's contained some difficult times ranging from my parents' divorce, the death of my grandmother, my mom's economic struggles that resulted in semi-frequent moves, and the painful reality shared by socially awkward, fat nerds everywhere (this was long before being a nerd was cool).

As the comedian-philosopher John Hodgman has argued, nostalgia becomes dangerous when it encourages us to forget that the past wasn't as good as we wish it had been.  It's dangerous when we want to make the present more like a past that never was while forgetting the often despicable ways in which things were good for some at the expense of others.  Nostalgia is dangerous when we want to do things like make America great again (For whom?  When was America so great?).  It's also dangerous when we worship the 80's without remembering that it was in fact a troubled time as awesome as all those synthesizers were.

So, am I saying we shouldn't enjoy Stranger Things and all the radness of the More-Eighties-Than-Eighties aesthetic?  Of course not.  I will be as giddy about Stranger Things Season Two as anyone.  I'm merely saying that nostalgia, like alcohol, is fun but it can be abused.  Nostalgia should come with a warning: enjoy responsibly.


  1. Today I realized I forgot to mention a More-80's-Than-80's movement in heavy metal: re-thrash, a genre that tries to capture the 80's heyday of Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, and Slayer. While re-thrash has been pronounced dead in the last couple years, the incomparable Vektor recently put out a new album that I enjoy quite a bit. Here are some reviews:

  2. More on parallel universes and Stranger Things from physicist Brian Greene: