Star Wars and Stranger Things might not seem like they have a ton in common on the surface. Both are very different kinds of sci-fi storytelling, and told in different mediums. Nevertheless, in many ways, I believe that Stranger Things has actually become this era’s Star Wars. Not only in how they are both love letters to several different other pieces of pop culture and history, but also with how they both seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the cultural zeitgeist.
When Star Wars debuted in theaters in May of 1977, it was like a bolt from out of the blue. Everyone reading this no doubt knows the impact it would have on cinema for the next forty years. It went beyond that. Every one of George Lucas’ characters from the film, no matter how small a role, became nearly instant household names. To this day, my mother has never seen a Star Wars movie from start to finish, but she sure as heck can name you all the main characters. And that’s probably holds true for a lot of people.
Within months of its release, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Darth Vader had left their prints at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and Bill Murray was parodying the overpowering impact of the film on SNL. There was an unauthorized Star Wars disco album, whose lead single went to #1. It was simply everywhere. And unlike almost every single blockbusters today, it was not based on a known property, it was wholly original. Well, sort of. But we’ll get to that.
Since then, modern day fans lament another Star Wars could never even happen in today’s 21st century film landscape. And by “another Star Wars,” we mean a completely original blockbuster franchise that grabs hold of the public consciousness; one not based on a known IP. For the past decade, the only true blockbuster genre film not based on a book, comic, or a sequel to an preexisting franchise was Inception. And that was already a decade ago. It seems the days when a wholly original property on film could take the world by storm are over. Certainly they’ve tried – Jupiter Ascending, we’re lookin’ at you kid.
But I believe that “the next Star Wars” has actually already arrived, and it’s Stranger Things. It just didn’t happen in movie theaters. Now, I am not saying Stranger Things is as big or an impactful as Star Wars. Please put away the pitchforks. Frankly, nothing may ever be that huge again. George Lucas’ original film came out in a vacuum. There was nothing else remotely like it anywhere in popular culture, so it sucked all the air out of the room. Stranger Things came out in a world of the MCU, Game of Thrones, and tons of other things aimed at the same audience. Including Star Wars. It was never going to be as enormous. But even so, both succeed for almost exactly the same reasons.
Stranger Things’ arrival and lightning fast dominance of the cultural conversation felt incredibly similar to Lucas’ saga decades earlier. Like Star Wars, Stranger Things wasn’t on anyone’s radar before its release. It wasn’t based on anything known, and its creators were not name brands. Within days of Stranger Things hitting Netflix though, it lit up social media like no other brand new show on the service ever had before. Memes were everywhere. That fall, I went to two separate Stranger Things-themed Halloween parties. And there were several folks costumed as Barb, essentially a minor character on the series. Thanks to Eleven, sales of Eggo waffles went up. And just like with Star Wars, within a year the merchandise was something you couldn’t escape if you tried.
And although these two properties are very different in terms of their narratives, the key to their respective success is the same. They are different and “new” enough to viewers to appear fresh, but are filled with so many classic elements and influences as to be comforting and familiar. They are both the ultimate amalgam properties. Both borrow from so very many different sources that you can’t possibly ever say about either of them that “this is just a rip off of (fill in the blank)”. You simply can’t be inspired by that many different sources and combine them into one property and still do it well, and then be a rip off of any one thing.
Neflix / Sony Pictures
Star Wars, of course, famously borrowed from old Flash Gordon serials, Arthurian Myth, westerns, fairy tales, Frank Herbert’s Dune, World War II movies (and actual WWII history), Akira Kurosawa films, and literally a dozen other things. Meanwhile, Stranger Things is the child of an entire era of genre filmmaking. And while it’s easy to just say it’s inspired by “the ‘80s,” truthfully, it’s larger than that. It’s like the Duffer Brothers looked at the major genre hits from 1975 – the year Jaws came out and Stephen King’s first novel became a hit – to about 1993, the year of Jurassic Park. And then freely took elements of just about everything from that period in put it into one series.
Lucasfilm / Netflix
Both Star Wars and Stranger Things pulled off the same magic trick on its audience. They come across as brand new and exciting to a young generation of fans, and are a nostalgia trip for older audiences. In ’77, the kids who flocked to see Star Wars and buy all the toys had no idea what inspired the space opera. And we didn’t care. We just knew we loved it. Meanwhile, the adult Baby Boomer audiences knew exactly what references Lucas’ film was making, and they ate it up too.
With Stranger Things, kids today are falling in love and identifying with the show’s young cast, while the adults who grew up with a particular era of film making are tickled by recognizing every reference the show makes to the movies and books of their youth. Sound familiar? Only time will tell if Stranger Things will have the same lasting cultural legacy of Star Wars. It likely won’t. But for right now, it has found a way to scratch the same cultural itch that George Lucas’ saga did some four decades ago.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm / Netflix