‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Donnie Darko’: ’80s Nostalgia Fantasizes Escaping the ’80s

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If you watch the trailers for Midnight Special and Stranger Things back to back, you wouldn’t sound crazy assuming they’re set in the same cinematic universe. Both excavate the fallacies of the “normalcy” of the Middle American Anyplace, both are about lovely children who happen to possess powers that are sometimes awe-inspiring and sometimes completely frightening, both see said children stuck and interrogated in visually striking hermetic labs, both see said children getting dangerously fatigued anytime they wield their powers, both involve the overlap of an alternate universe and this one, both are as full of heart as they are mood, being as they are about the tenacity of a parental bond, and both have been compared to early Spielberg (particularly E.T.) and other ’80s sci-fi films in just about every review you’ll find of them. (If we’re talking qualitatively, I’d say Midnight Special is more inventive and less homage-oriented while Stranger Things is more intentionally derivative, but also cohesive, engrossing, and overall better.)

In these works that very blatantly recall ’80s filmmaking — stylistically and thematically — perhaps one implication of common the focus on children who either possess supernatural abilities or come in contact with them is that these children were misfits in an era where so much of culture was predicated — in 50s relapse — on cultural conservatism, patriotism, and materialism. What’s funny is that some of the most popular ’80s films were, themselves, escapist fantasies of the times — and now, in these new works that fervently nod towards that era in filmmaking, we’re seeing escapism, a harkening backward, to an era that culturally seemed to want to escape itself.

If you think about just about any classic film from the ’80s exploring childhood or adolescence, it was almost always through the eyes of the outcast. Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder (quite relevantly, as she stars in a very “meta-casted” fashion in Stranger Things) were two of the most eminent faces of pop cultural ’80s youth, and both were often cast in roles of people who didn’t belong in the culture they were given. In Heathers, Ryder famously set about destroying visions of ’80s adolescent perfection by massacring her peers. As Flavorwire’s own Jason Bailey said of the movie, “It arrived in theaters just a couple of months after the conclusion of the Reagan administration, which painstakingly framed American life as a perpetual optimistic morning where anything is possible, casually ignoring societal woes and widespread inequality to pine for the kind of grinning 1950s sitcom life sent up by [Christian Slater’s character] J.D.’s dialogue with his dad.”

Ryder’s roles in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands expressed their grievances with the status quo a bit more casually, but there was certainly a reason Beetlejuice’s Lydia was drawn away from her ’80s New York socialite family toward the more authentic couple who happened to be intangible, and why Scissorhands’ Kim finds excitement and solace in the imposition of a mutant cosmetologist in her household. Ringwald similarly made a career of rolling her eyes in vague dismissal of pervasive adolescent norms.

And then there the actual Spielbergian films of the era — films that seem the furthest thing from rebellious (their high-budget optimistic schmaltz seems to fit the Reagan era zeitgeist quite well). That being said, his characters were still often unable to find their places socially: Eliott in E.T. is a loner looking for a friend, and along comes a telepathic alien pug. In Poltergeist (which Spielberg wrote and produced but didn’t direct), Carol Ann Freeling is a clairvoyant child who, as in Stranger Things, is abducted into another realm, and who in the third film ends up attending a school for gifted, emotionally unstable children. Of course, there’s also The Goonies, likewise produced and conceived by Spielberg, about a group of outcasts caught up in their own inventive world. None of the films mentioned above take place in a city: it’s all either deeply suburban or lightly rural — the films about kids and adolescents are set in the designated for middle class mostly-white Americans to raise kids and adolescents. (Poltergeist most blatantly explores the oddity of these rapidly built paragons of white American normalcy and comfort being built atop the country’s injustices — set as it is over a Native American burial ground; the varnishing of America’s problems in a coat of affluent white optimism seems a valid summary of the era.)

Late 1980s/early 90s America was when suburbia first started housing a majority of the American populace; though we think of the ’50s, with the establishment of Levittowns, as being the core of the nuclear familial suburbanization epidemic, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that half of America lived in the ‘burbs. If ’50s entertainment, and contemporary period pieces set in the ’50s, focused on a homogenized aspect of American life that actually didn’t correspond to the experiences of most Americans, suburbanites were a majority in the ’80s — and under Reaganism, a push towards homogeneity, while perhaps less stifling or prudish, didn’t just dominate depictions of American life, but actual American life. (Back to the Future certainly plays around with the connections between these two eras.)

The comfort of the ’80s under Reaganomics created a culture of capitalist optimism (and the dawn of “yuppiedom”) — while using that consumerist drive as an abstract defense against Soviet Communism and the overhanging threat of nuclear war, and while quietly laying the groundwork for the class stratification the country experiences today. It was an era where the dominant discourse was normatively “positive,” and the ills being inflicted on marginal communities (the homeless, the gay community with the AIDS epidemic, and people of color via the war on drugs) were swept under the rug — these ills existed, one could say, in another dimension than that considered by the Reaganite majority.

Just as there was a sense of unease among young film protagonists with the world they’d been given in the ’80s, ’80s throwback works — partially simply in imitation — have likewise focused on adolescents/children who didn’t fit in, and found, or were forced into, some form of escape. The 2001 science fictionalized embodiment of teenage angst — Donnie Darko — is set in suburban Virginia in 1988, and focuses on a teen who sees into the future, and can transcend space-time, while his cog classmates, as Gary Jules intones on the whiny cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for the film, are “run[ning] in circles,” “going nowhere, going nowhere,” with “no expression, no expression.”

As in Donnie Darko, Stranger Things sees a portal opening from a small ’80s suburban town into the actual darkness that lurks all around it. The show’s protagonists are pretty much all outcasts. A group of four children — all Dungeons and Dragons fanatics — seek shelter from the bullies in the imaginary world in which they can band together to fight the likes of the Demogorgon. One of them — who other students have deemed queer based on his smallness and their perception of him as effeminate — is abducted by a monster with an oddly floral visage and taken via portal into a world later referred to as “The Upside Down,” a carbon copy of our world, but dark, apocalyptic and unpopulated, but for by the monster. If these kids seem to come from Stand By Me, the character of Eleven, a near-mute telekinetic little girl who opened the portal, is certainly something of an E.T. parallel (she even gets put in a pink dress and a blond wig à la E.T.) And while the group of nerds are surely mini-societal outsiders, her alienation — as a mute with powers who grew up in a lab — and heroization therein is even more literal.

This character isn’t dissimilar to Midnight Special‘s protagonist, Alton, who, like Eleven, is pursued by sinister institutions who want to make them their captive savior, and whose diminutive stature is paired with immense powers that he has a hard time containing. Both struggle deeply to live in this world — and in Midnight Special, a second (though far pleasanter) dimension is also opened up by the child character.

It should be mentioned that in just about all of these films, the protagonists likewise come from broken or highly dysfunctional homes — they live within spaces that are emblematic of American ideals, and their lives are predisposed to not being accepted by their peers, who fight the threat of social asymmetry with bullying. Often ostracized and aggressed, their fantasies of escape are manifested in the imposition of science fictional motifs in their normal worlds. The escape isn’t always good — in Stranger Things, Poltergeist and Donnie Darko, the opening of other dimensions only reinforces notions of the darkness that underlies our own — but it almost always seems to come from characters who need and fantasize escape from their zeitgeist.

If there was a sweet optimism in the notion in some of the actual films from the ’80s regarding young protagonists and their abilities to transcend their times or simply find comfort in their marginal niches, what’s the implication when so many films/series look longingly back to an era that was longingly looking away from itself? I wonder if these ’80s nostalgia pieces actually glorify the ’80s as a whole as much as they long for a time when escape from their times seemed like viable options. The ’80s fetish in film/TV perhaps isn’t about the ’80s — it’s about using an era that cinematically was all about escape as a surrogate for the current era we’d all probably like to escape. The ’80s saw America beginning to resemble — as far as class divides, and as far as the drive of conservatism were concerned — what it does today. The reign of computers on daily life was starting to be spoken of as a near-future fantasy, and the reign of Reagan’s reshaping of American politics was just forming; perhaps all of this felt more elastic then. These things have now calcified and are deeply embedded in our existence. It’s not that the ’80s were truly worthy of optimism — it’s just that escapist narratives back then didn’t seem quite so farfetched.