I’d never have guessed that it would take me three entire weeks to watch the eight episodes that make up Stranger Things 3. With Game of Thrones and all the Netflix Marvel shows behind us, it’s my favorite current television show.
It was a long wait for this season: twenty months since season 2. And while Stranger Things season one remains my favorite of the series, this third season was certainly very good.
As it progressed, I realized that while the writing and the cast are both excellent, the true appeal of Stranger Things stems from its callbacks to the vast bonanza of culture offered by the 1980s. The number of truly iconic films to come out of that decade is pretty amazing.
Nostalgia in Stranger Things 3
There were more eighties movie references than I’m willing to list exhaustively, but I’d like to share ten of my favorites – the ones that kept popping out to me as we watched this season. Please note that there are huge spoilers ahead.
Beginning with the exploding rats, and certainly when the melted blobs of flesh crawled along to merge into a greater whole and form gruesome Lovecraftian horrors, I sensed the mashup between The Thing and Terminator 2. But given that it’s disgusting bloody chunks of flesh rather than liquid metal, I’ll file this one under The Thing.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers
Although Will was taken by the mind flayer in the second season, Stranger Things 3 had a number of townsfolk possessed by the evil force from the Upside Down. Seeing a number of them stand side-by-side with that empty expression gave me a distinct Bodysnatchers vibe.
From the first time we saw Soviet Arnold relentlessly tracking Chief Hopper, I started referring to him as The Russian Terminator.
The Soviet threat on American soil is a cold war fear that has never been distilled and presented more aptly than in the 1984 film Red Dawn. A secret Russian base beneath a shopping mall – that most iconic symbol of American capitalism – was a perfect setting for Stranger Things‘s third season.
As if Will being pasted to a wall in the upside down with slime and tentacles in the first season wasn’t enough, Stranger Things 3 continues the Alien references. Consider the gorebeast that cornered Nancy in the hospital and got right up in her face to roar at her.
ET: The Extra Terrestrial
At the season’s outset, Dustin sets up a large antenna at the top of a mountain he calls Weathertop, and he names his antenna Cerebro. Apparently, the kids are reading Tolkien and X-Men comics. I approve. That transmitter set up in a field reminds me very much of the one ET had set up.
I love Cary Elwes as the sleazy mayor of Hawkins. But I can’t help feeling that a mayor wanting the 4th of July festivities to go on despite the police chief’s warnings of serious danger to the townsfolk is a theme we’ve seen before.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Of course, Billy’s poolside swimsuit walk is the most obvious reference to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but let’s not forget the awesome and hilarious outfits worn by Steve and Robin for their jobs at Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop. They bring to mind Judge Reinhold’s fast food uniform.
When Eleven ties on her blindfold, and you see that shot of the back of her head as she pulls the knot tight, it’s all Rambo. I’ve heard some others cite Karate Kid, and that’s probably also valid, but all I can think of is Rambo tying on his headband.
The initial encounter between Chief Hopper and the Russian Terminator begins with Hopper pointing a gun at the Soviet’s head and being told that he won’t shoot, because police have rules. Both this and the ensuing fight are lifted straight from John Mclane.
Nerdiness in Stranger Things 3
Stranger Things embraces nerdiness. From the first season where the crew was spending time with Mr. Clarke in AV Club to Bob Newby’s BASIC code which ran a nested loop to guess every possible 4-digit number, the show has always been partial to geekcraft. This most recent season sees Dustin returning from Camp Know Where with a cache of inventions, follows Joyce as she learns about electromagnetism, and stops just short of having Suzie nerd-shame Dustin for having forgotten Planck’s constant.
The kids obviously read books and comics. Dustin has made at least two Tolkien references, to Mirkwood and Weathertop respectively, and he calls his mega-antenna Cerebro, which tells us that the kids follow X-Men comics. Meanwhile, Max shows Eleven her Wonder Woman and Green Lantern comics, and we see Suzie reading Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I read myself when I was her age.
I loved seeing Lucas’s younger sister Erica pick up the legendary Dungeons and Dragons Red Box. I first got that set for Christmas when I was twelve, and I was so excited that I found the box where my parents had hidden the gifts in the attic and read through them when they weren’t home.
The notion that she’s now embraced geekiness after spending previous seasons pejoratively calling her brother’s friends nerds is wonderful. And since she’s obviously an agenda-setter in her friend group, she now has the opportunity to introduce others to role-playing games. My only regret is that Mike may be giving up a hobby that he was more invested in than any of his other friends, for however short a time. Perhaps, like myself, he’ll give it up for a few years only to come back to it later in life.
Horror in Stranger Things 3
While Stranger Things‘s first season leaned most heavily on ET: The Extra Terrestrial, the third had a firm foundation in John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982. And expanding onward from its Aliens-inspired horror tidbits from earlier seasons, the punishment doled out by the Mind Flayer this season was comparatively intense.
I’ve been considering for a while whether my 12-year-old daughter might be old enough to watch Stranger Things with us, despite the fact that the bulk of the eighties movie references will go over her head. The demogorgon in season one was frightening, but nothing she can’t handle. In terms of season one, I was mostly concerned with how she might absorb the depiction of a girl losing her virginity.
Season two had some intense moments, Will’s screaming inhalation of the smoke monster from Lost being one of the more intense ones. Season two also showcased a college party with a lot of underage drinking. The most gory thing I can recall from season two is what happened to Bob Newby. But even that isn’t worse than what she’s already seen in Jurassic Park.
Season three amps up the body horror to new levels. From piles of sentient bloody flesh to victims having demonic ovipositors forced into their faces to impromptu amateur surgery extracting a goo monster from El’s leg, it was without doubt more of a horror piece than previous seasons. Maybe we’ll wait until she’s thirteen.
Questions, Loose Ends, and a Fourth Season
Stranger Things 3 ended with as many questions as any previous season has. The oblique reference to “the American” during the show’s final minute before we saw a demogorgon in Russia gives us hope that Hopper somehow survived, but anything further is speculation. Eleven has seemingly lost her powers, although for how long is anyone’s guess. Will still retains a connection to The Mind Flayer, and you can bet that this will be important in seasons to come.
In upcoming seasons, I’d very much like to explore whether any of Eleven’s fellow test subjects are still alive. I’d like to see Kali (eight) again, find out whether Dr. Brenner is still around, and see whether she’s still trying to track him down and kill him.
We didn’t get to see very much of the upside down in season three. I’m hoping that season four gives us more of a view of the other side, because it really did feel like an omission.
I’d also like to see more of Hopper’s bumbling officers Powell & Callahan. Those guys are hilarious. Maybe they’ll take over for him.
Stranger Things Season 3 took place in the summer of 1985, which is when we saw Back to the Future, Day of the Dead, and I caught reference to D.A.R.Y.L. on a movie marquis. The Breakfast Club, The Goonies, Weird Science, and Teen Wolf would have also been released that year.
If the next season takes place in 1986, we’ll have another rich bounty of eighties movies on which to feast. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the most likely candidate, but Highlander, Top Gun, or Three Amigos could also be at center stage. My personal picks would be Labyrinth, Big Trouble in Little China, or Rad. Does anyone but me remember the movie Rad? I loved that movie so much. Stand By Me, Aliens, and The Fly also came out in 1986, but those might be too on-the-nose.
Stranger Things has done a great job until now casting actors who were popular in the eighties. Season one had Matthew Modine, Season two used Season Astin, and this third season cast both Cary Elwes and Jake Busey. And of course, there’s Winona Ryder.
If I were to have any suggestions for who might be good in season four, I’d suggest Corey Feldman, Ally Sheedy, or Steve Guttenberg.