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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Retro/Upside Down

To viewers steeped in 1980s popular film, the world of Stranger Things will seem eerily familiar. When we meet series’ four tween protagonists — in the throes of a Dungeons and Dragons quest—we feel we’re viewing these kids through some movie screen from 30 years’ past. Physically, the foursome resurrects The Goonies, thanks in no small part to the chipper, chunky Gaten Matarazzo’s turn as Dustin. Their preferred mode of conveyance, we’ll see in later scenes, the glorious chopper bike, is straight out of E.T. Their dialogue is pitched like that from the cult classic Stand By Me, peppered with insults, geeky comic book obsessions, and, lest we forget that the young characters are contending with forces well beyond their years—the occasional dollop of profanity.

The sense that we’re descending into an alternate universe intensifies as we get to know the boys’ hometown, Hawkinsville. What is it about Hawkinsville that seems so forlorn and doom-drenched? Is it the cheap, bland residential architecture, stapled up around isolated cul-de-sacs? Yes, probably so, and this visual is aided by some musical choices—we’ll get to those later. But, as we’ll soon see, the evil looming over Hawkinsville emanates from the town’s outskirts, at the Hawkinsville Research Laboratory.

The Hawkinsville lab will eventually bring out the best and worst in the small town. And that’s precisely what Stranger Things’ retro-visionary creators, the Duffer Brothers, are committed to revealing. The Duffers peel back layers, peering into its bedrooms and basements, confronting the town’s oppressive elements. We learn that Hawkinsville is crazy with bullies— schoolyard bullies, sexual manipulators, consequentialist government agents. Before the laboratory unleashed its forces, Hawkinsville was supposed to be safe. It never truly was, not for everybody, at any rate.

Hawkinsville has yet another other side, an alternate uni-verse called the Upside Down, to which a member of the foursome, Will Byers, has been abducted. The Upside Down exists within everyday reality, and if there is one desert prophet able to sense its presence, it’s Will’s mom, Joyce, portrayed by Winona Ryder. Although we might be tempted to chalk this up to a grieving mother’s wishful thinking, Joyce is convinced that she can communicate with Will in the Upside Down. Her method of receiving revelation is as eccentric as she is, Christmas tree lights and an alphabet spray painted on the wall like a giant Ouija board.

Anchoring his wild-eyed and hysterical mom is Will’s older brother, Jonathan, portrayed by Charlie Heaton. While Jonathan may seem more stable, Jonathan has inherited his mom’s knack for poking holes. His opportunistic, horny father abandoned the family, leaving them on the fringes. Jonathan, a high schooler, has absorbed much of the family’s social shame. Jonathan uses his outsider’s perspective to indulge has passion, photography. Though his voyeurism gets him into trouble, it also focuses his gaze and sharpens his senses. After he strikes up an unlikely friendship with popular girl Nancy, he bluntly offers her a pronouncement straight out of The Breakfast Club: You’ll marry a jock and settle.

If there’s a medium through which Jonathan projects his life on the fringes, it’s his music. In a town filled with Foreigner, Toto, and Journey power ballads, Jonathan manages to find the transgressive—the Clash, Bowie, Television. We get a glimpse of Jonathan’s musical tastes when introduces Will to the Clash’s “Should I Say or Should I Go.” The song will be a source of comfort for his little brother, Will.

These are, of course, the Duffer Brothers’ musical choices. More than once, Stranger Things’s episode climaxes are poetic cross cuts of this sort of fare. Setting such a scene with the proto-emo anthem “Atmosphere,” by the new wave band Joy Division, is arguably the most inspired musical choice, but there’s a case to be made for The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which fairly oozes with the Upside Down’s strangeness.

Stranger Things’ most persistent musical reminder that all is not right in Hawkinsville is the show’s retro synth-pop original score. The reference here, surely, is John Carpenter’s uber creepy music for Halloween. Carpenter understood how to create tension between what his camera and his music were saying. Consider the shot of Jamie Lee Curtis walking home from school on a sunny afternoon. It may seem an innocent scene without the audio, but Carpenter’s score tells us that something not of this world lurks within Hallo-ween’s town of Haddonfield.

And so it is in Hawkinsville. Attenuating the social and metaphysical divides of Stranger Things is its heroine, Eleven, portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown. Eleven is the sort of female badass that might strike us completely modern, but even here we can find 1980s eraNetflix turns the world Upside Down.. Eleven’s ferocity—not to mention her shaved head—suggests a 12-year-old Ripley. Her intense telekinetic stares recall Drew Barrymore’s in Firestarter.

It’s these stares that her mendacious father, portrayed by Matthew Modine wants to exploit. (Don’t expect the goofy panty-sniffer from Visionquest.) Breaking free of his influence will be one of her toughest battles. How Eleven laid claim to her gifts is unclear. Are her abilities from the Upside Down, or of this world? Or are they from a meta-reality to which both universes are subject?

Regardless, Eleven bridges these two realities, filling a role that, like E.T.’s, is sacrificial, even salvific. Accomplishing this means undoing Hawkinsville’s bullies, big and small, and she’s up for the task. Each saving act brings her closer to her demise. But we know the wall between Hawkinsville and the beyond is porous. Wherever she winds up, she can surely be summoned for Season 2.

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