10 Strange Facts for Stranger Things

I love Stranger Things. And apparently, so does everyone else.

Despite its popularity, the rampant critical acclaim of Netflix’s Stranger Things was unprecedented upon its release. The initial script produced by the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, had been repeatedly rejected by a string of cable networks. It was simply uncategorizable. The ensemble of children at the heart of the TV show—Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will—made producers question: was Stranger Things a children’s show? Would adults enjoy it? And if it was geared towards children, shouldn’t the tone be lighter? 

Thankfully, the Duffer brothers never changed their stride, and neither did the show. It was picked up by Netflix in early 2015 and here we are: a homage of 80’s synth pop, jean jackets, and sci-fi movies later, Stranger Things now sits atop Netflix’s most-watched series list, and boasts a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what was it that pushed Stranger Things over the edge of indie film territory and into pop culture appeal? Was it the soundtrack? The stellar casting? Steve Harrington’s hair? Maybe, but the response might also have something to do with nostalgia, and Stranger Things certainly had plenty of that.

You might have caught some of them, but here are 10 references you may have missed in Netflix’s monstrous hit.

1. E.T.

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Image from camiseteria.com

No surprise here; thematic shades of E.T. are all over Stranger Things. We see it in the cinematic shots of the series—kids on bicycles, anyone?—but it’s also stunningly prominent in the parallels between Eleven and E.T. As an “alien,” so to speak, Eleven and E.T. share a fixation on one type of food (leggo my eggo), have both dressed up in blonde wigs to blend in, and are both in hiding from shadowy government figures.

2. Dungeons and Dragons

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Image from roebeast.blogspot.com

I think we all caught this one. After all, the series opens with a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, in which Will fails to kill a popular a mythical creature in D&D lore. This scene does two things: first, it foreshadows Will’s capture, which happens immediately after and drives the entire season one plot; and second, it contextualizes the creature in terms that the kids (and us as the audience) can identify. For the rest of the series, the unknown creature from the Upside Down is known as the demogorgon. 

3. Alien

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Image from bustle.com

The demogorgon in Stranger Things has a few nods to Ridley Scott’s aliens. It leaves a lot of goo in its wake, and (spoilers!) it likes to incubate its victims with smaller creatures by forcing its victims to swallow them.

They’re kind of like…worms. Or snakes. It’s gross.

4. Stephen King

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Image from stephenking.wikia.com

I’ve listed Stephen King as a category in a vague sense, because Stranger Things has multiple horror motifs typified by King during his prolific career as a writer. Mainly, Stranger Things takes its cues from King’s novels Firestarter and Carrie. In both cases, Eleven’s telepathic and occasionally erratic powers, along with her abusive and watchful upbringing, align her with Carrie White and Charlie McGee.

5. Star Wars

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Image from heavyarmor.wordpress.com

This one is a bit more obvious, as the characters often voice the references directly instead of the Duffer brothers hiding them under cinematic quality. Eleven has “jedi powers,” Mike owns a Yoda action-figure and talks about the Force, and when Lucas thinks Eleven has betrayed the group he calls her “Lando,” after the Star Wars character who betrays Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

6. Nightmare on Elm Street

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Image from elitedaily.com

Episode 8 of Stranger Things has Nancy and Jonathan trying to go head-to-head with the monster, luring it into Jonathan’s house with a brigade of traps and eventually setting it on fire. Sound familiar? It should—the climax of the 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street played out in a similar way.

7. The Goonies

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Image from mentalfloss.com

Everyone loves a good ragtag group of misfit kids. And we see a lot of similarities in the playful and mischievous behaviour of the Goonies squad to the Stranger Things crew. The main rule: no adults allowed. (But as a lover of Stranger Things, I’m willing to point out that we do have Joyce and Hopper involved, but they act pretty autonomously for the majority of the show and are in their own separate ‘clique’).

8. X-Men

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Image from comicvine.gamespot.com

X-men also has misfits, yes, but we’ll give that to The Goonies instead. A trickier reference to the Marvel comics actually happens in the first episode, when Dustin and Will are talking about an X-Men comic; the specific issue they argue about is volume 134, in which “Jean Grey mentally snaps…and inadvertently unleashes the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond her control,” which is a tip of the hat to Eleven later in the series.

9. The Thing

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Image from culturecreature.com

The 80’s horror movie The Thing makes a few appearances in Stranger Things. This one is a bit like Star Wars, in that there are a couple of casual mentions you can spot if you’re looking for them. In Mike’s basement there’s a poster for the movie on one of the walls, and when Dustin calls Mr. Clarke for information on how to build a sensory deprivation tank (which is the most awkward and amusing thing on the show), guess what Mr. Clarke is watching? That’s right: The Thing.

10. Minority Report/Fringe

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Image from movle.blogspot.com

Last but not least, I’m going to throw in a debatable one. When the characters on Stranger Things make a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to heighten her telepathy and enter the Upside Down, some people got flashes of the 2002 movie Minority Report. Specifically, the scene when Spielberg’s pre-cogs lay in their own sensory deprivation tanks to get flashes of the future.

Now, as it’s Spielberg we’re talking about here (whose other movies are a big influence on the show), it’s probably a homage to him. But! For anyone who watched the hit TV series Fringe—did you not get flashbacks of psychic Olivia Dunham concentrating in a sensory deprivation tank? I did. I really did.

So, did we miss anything? Let us know if you caught something strange that we missed, and bonus points for the more obscure the reference is!

-Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

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Surviving Humanity in Subnautica

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Image from twitter.com/subnautica

Like most survival video-games, Subnautica’s main premise is straightforward: you have crash-landed your spaceship on an alien planet. You have naught but your wits and the equipment on your landing pod to help you survive (think Robinson Crusoe in a futuristic alien world). Your main goal is to find food, fresh water, and shelter until you can find a way to get back home. Simple, right? Well, maybe not so much. I don’t mean that the gameplay is harder than it looks, but that the seemingly basic premise of the game is actually more complex than it seems. Right from the start, Subnautica presents you with two fundamental points about human survival: what you need to do vs. what you can do.

In the beginning of the game, this seems like a fairly easy choice. You need to find food and water to survive, so you craft a little hunting knife out of natural materials and go hunting. This action is clearly necessary, seeing as you would starve and die in the game if you didn’t hunt. However, as Subnautica progresses, the necessity of your actions becomes more and more questionable. Once you have your bare necessities covered, you can start acting arbitrarily, first crafting small things to make life easier (like the Seaglide which helps you swim faster), and then moving onto larger vehicles such as the Seamoth, and eventually gargantuan vehicles such as the Cyclops. What’s interesting about Subnautica is the subtlety with which it offers the player these options: it starts with little convenient tools that make surviving easier, and then moves onto larger, completely arbitrary structures. We as players are slowly conditioned to think in a way that goes from “A Seaglide will make swimming easier, surely I am justified in making that,” to “Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome having a giant submarine all to myself?”

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Image from unknownworlds.com

YouTuber jacksepticeye says in one of his Subnautica videos that humans don’t just kill the thing that’s in our way; we go the long way around and make it go extinct. It’s a joke, but it’s one that rings painfully true given our history of colonialism, imperialism, and eco-terrorism. The game thus gives you the choice to either become a person who takes from the environment with no regard for the consequences, or someone who lives comfortably while being conscious of their impact. Take jacksepticeye’s playthrough, for instance. At first, he just makes a small base for himself, even saying himself that he doesn’t want to change the environment too much. Later on, however, he essentially builds himself a small underwater city, complete with empty skyscrapers and an aquarium. He even makes a little amusement park on one of the islands in the game—and if that isn’t claiming a space as your own, nothing is.

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Image from youtube.com/jacksepticeye

The game developers themselves show an awareness of the player’s impact on the environment. When you first land in your starting area in the ocean, there are plenty of fish around that you can catch and eat. However, as the game progresses and you go fishing for food more and more often, the amount of fish available in that area dramatically decreases, and you end up having to go to new areas to find food. Now, this might just be the game increasing in difficulty to prompt the player to explore more, but in a game so detailed that the developers programmed your landing pod to gradually float away from its original position, it isn’t too far fetched to think they would also show the impact of your fishing on the marine ecosystem.

It’s also clear that humans are not at the top of the food chain in this ecosystem, nor are we meant to be. In fact, the only thing in the game that can cause any actual direct harm is a small hunting knife; almost every other handheld tool is either used for everyday convenience, or to affect the way something moves towards or away from you. Clearly, you are not meant to harm every creature you see. Subnautica is primarily a survival game, not a fighting one, and the developers stick to this principle.

By making it so difficult to harm anything larger than a medium sized fish, the game suggests that you are only supposed to kill that which you need to survive, leaving the larger creatures well enough alone—which of course doesn’t stop any of us from trying to kill a large Stalker or Reaper Leviathan. That’s kind of the point though; going after creatures bigger than you is an illogical yet conscious decision. It requires that you want to kill not for survival, but for sport. More importantly, it demands that you take personal responsibility for harming another organism purely out of enjoyment.

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Image from steam-user KroolTheField

This is why I think Subnautica has a much deeper meaning than what people might initially see: it shows how easy it can be, even for a decent, ordinary person, to let a conquest for personal gain or enjoyment cloud their judgment. Humanity has a tendency to claim any space we come across as our own, and we do so with little regard as to how we might affect the environment around us. As a result, humans are not the ones struggling to survive anymore; it’s everything else on the planet. We see examples of this everywhere we go: condos built where parks used to be, increasingly hot summers breaking a new record every year, invasive species choking out our indigenous ones. We see the detrimental impact our consumption has had on the environment, yet most of us still carry on with our usual lives. This passivity may be the most harmful thing of all. In doing nothing, we are forgetting one fundamental truth about human existence on this planet: our ability to thrive on Earth comes at the cost of the Earth itself.

So, yes: Subnautica is just a game. But it’s a game that says a lot about how easily humans can claim spaces as their own, and how our choices impact the world. It’s the choices we make as the player that show how aware we are of the environment. The game itself doesn’t force players to build a gigantic base to progress, nor do we need to go kill larger creatures to survive. It merely presents these options to us, and we, the players, decide what we build and how we use it. While many of us might be quick to claim that we would never willingly do anything to harm the environment, the fact is that we already have. Anyone can play this game, anyone can impact the environment, and anyone can move on without a second thought. The only question is, will you?

-Contributed by Carine Lee

Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

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Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

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Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

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Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Just Peace: Ambitious Politics in Doctor Who

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Illustration by Stephanie Gao

Yes, in this post I will be discussing specific scenes. Yes, there will be spoilers.

Doctor Who is an awesome show; you don’t need me to tell you that. Full of action, sci-fi, and a dash of romance, it has captivated viewers over many generations. Even if you aren’t interested in any of these aspects of the show—which I honestly can’t imagine to be the case—Doctor Who also provides a different angle of interest. It is a clever show that uses elements from history and gestures towards real world political tensions with relevance and tact.

At the heart of the show lies the figure of the Doctor: a powerful, mostly benevolent, and ageless (no, really, the production team has messed up the details of his age frequently) Time Lord. The Doctor is arguably the most important symbol created by the franchise. He roams freely across the universe, engaging in conflict with various malevolent alien species and humans who seek to do harm to others.

One of the Doctor’s most formidable enemies is also one the show’s greatest political statements. The Daleks are aliens that see themselves as a superior race and seek to exterminate other species. They originated in the 60s, borne out of a decade where the tensions of World War II were still resonant and frightening. The characterization of the Daleks as having an ideology comparable to Nazism allows the viewers to breathe a sigh of relief when the Doctor destroys them to protect humanity. Confrontation between the Doctor and the Daleks also represents the destruction of one ideology at the hands of another. This political statement that has its roots in the Cold War, and the strong message that the United Kingdom wanted to send to potential aggressors.

Vigilantism often falls within the patch of grey between clearly defined categories of good and bad. Though the Doctor doles out justice without authorization, he mostly manages to lean closer to the good. Before the Doctor condemns the villainous groups, he listens to eyewitness accounts of the horrors committed and uses historical and factual evidence. He also attempts to rehabilitate the villains before using irreversible force, as seen in his actions in the season 4 finale, “Journey’s End”, where he attempts to engage the Daleks in dialogue before blowing up their spaceship.

The Doctor is representative of the reality of how politics can and often does play out. Even in our world, states with more power and resources engage in treaties of protection with states lacking in these things, similar to how the Doctor offers protection to alien or human societies and the universe as a whole. Before engaging in combat or war, the Doctor insists that every measure be taken to minimize causalities and engage in peaceful mediation. The aforementioned episode was written in 2008, a time of fierce combat in the Middle East, which the United Kingdom, through NATO, participated in.

Doctor Who is also highly political in its treatment of sex and race. It features Captain Jack, a multi-sexual character with varying interests, and Martha Jones, a black female character who challenges viewers to face Britain’s troubling racist past when the character journeys to the Victorian era and encounters an obvious lack of basic human respect, to say the least. Doctor Who brings issues of race and sexual identity to the forefront when it features these characters in important roles within the Doctor’s life and allows for positive discourse on their unique qualities through the Doctor’s unquestioned acceptance of them.

While watching the show, I’ve often been fascinated by the nature of this fictional world. It depicts a version of our world that is resilient, as it is constantly assailed by species beyond human understanding, and yet manages to maintain its dignity, hope, and the will to fight. In light of the recent attacks on societies by terrorist and extremist groups, these are qualities that we should adopt and remember as our own. While I’ve seen no evidence of the Doctor being present in our world, may the political ideals of justice and peace that he embodies live and thrive.

-Contributed by Molly Cong

Star Wars: the Force Awakens—We’re Home

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It’s been nearly ten years since the release of the almost universally loathed Star Wars prequels, and over thirty since we first witnessed the Star Wars that generations know and love. When Disney revealed that they are making a new trilogy, with new filmmakers, of course we were nervous. But the release of The Force Awakens proved those nerves to be unfounded. J. J. Abrams and company have not only given us a return to form for the galaxy far, far away, but they have delivered a movie that in the Star Wars series might only be outshined by The Empire Strikes Back.

From the opening shot of the movie, Abrams reveals what kind of ride we are in for: one that reverently loves the original trilogy and is going to deliver a new twist on a familiar world.

Just to get it out of the way, yes the original cast are back. Carrie Fisher slips in as General Leia in what is more of an extended cameo, along with C-3P0 and R2-D2. Yes, Luke Skywalker is in the movie. That’s all I can say about that.

Harrison Ford is also back as Han Solo, alongside Chewbacca. Watching them feels like coming home. Ford is fantastic as a grizzled, older Han. At no point while watching do you think “look, it’s Harrison Ford in a costume” the way you did when watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. He is Han Solo. He slips back into that role, and he owns it. That really is Han Solo strutting around the Millennium Falcon.

But this isn’t just two hours with the cast of A New Hope in their old age. The new characters of The Force Awakens are incredible, and I’m happy to admit that within the first half an hour I was sold on following the adventures of this new generation.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the first new character we meet. He’s described as the best pilot in the Resistance, and he knows it. Isaac brings a swagger and charm to the role so easily that if I look him up in the dictionary I’d expect the word “likeable” to be written next to his name. His is a character we don’t get enough of, and I hope that he makes a bigger return in episode VIII.

The real stars (pun intended) of the show, are John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey. A Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn is a dorky, lovable guy just trying to get along in the universe and escape the villainous First Order. Finn is all-around just a good guy. His chemistry with Rey, Poe, Han Solo, and even Chewbacca will make you smile, and it’s worth mentioning that Finn is funny. Many of the films best laughs come from him, and it’s hard not to love how much John Boyega clearly enjoys being in Star Wars. But Finn is not alone; a lot of his best material comes from the chemistry and clear friendship between him and Rey.

Simply put, Rey is amazing. Between her, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, it is a refreshing year to be a fan of great female leads in science fiction movies. A scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rey is both fierce and kind. She charges through the movie with an emotional and physical fervor that the Luke Skywalker of yesteryear never quite managed. A silent introduction of her sliding down a desert sand dune, buzzing around on a speeder, and watching the sun set through a dusty rebel pilot’s helmet sets the tone for the character without a word. Her reaction to seeing a forest after spending her whole life in the desert pulls at heartstrings, her friendships with Finn and Han Solo make you cheer, and when Rey gets down to battle, you’re on the edge of your seat. Without the friendship and capability of Finn and Rey this movie would have been great, but with them it’s damn near perfect.

Also, the new droid of the film BB-8 is surprisingly lovable. I was ready to find him just as annoying as the infamous Jar Jar, but no. BB-8 is great. He bleeps and bloops lovably and capably along. I’d happily accept a BB-8 of my own. I’d call him buddy.

Of course, you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about villains. The shiny Captain Phasma does far less to deserve her spotlight than Boba Fett ever did, First Order General Hux is appropriately Naziesque, and Supreme Leader Snoke isn’t really enough of a presence to justify a real opinion.

This leaves the weight of villainy on the shoulders of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There was always a threat of delivering a villain who was just not as good as Darth Vader (something Lucas’s prequels fell prey to each time), but The Force Awakens cleverly circumvents the issue. In fact, the long shadow cast by Vader’s image is one of Kylo’s principle motivations. Kylo Ren is different kind of villain, and it works. When he meets our heroes for the climactic lightsaber duel (I don’t consider saying there is a lightsaber fight a spoiler), he delivers the dynamic exciting clash between the dark side and the light that Star Wars must always have.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling the movie, but I can talk about the structure. The plot of this movie is simple, coherent, and easy to follow. Yes, there are elements and beats we have seen before. This is a movie that needed to convince us that Star Wars is back, so there are certain things it needed to do. This is not a criticism, because while The Force Awakens is nostalgic for the original 1977 film, A New Hope was in turn nostalgic for Flash Gordon and the Westerns of the 1950/60s. Star Wars was always nostalgic for something, so the reverence shown in this film was rightly placed. I went into a movie theater to see Star Wars, and that is what I saw. I couldn’t be happier.

Yes, there are small problems, but hey, nothing is perfect! The fact that I only really find issues when I go in to nitpick (one interaction between Leia and Chewbacca didn’t ring true for me) means it was a pretty good ride.

One word of warning: if you walk into The Force Awakens expecting a completely original plot with nothing you’ve ever seen before, you’re going to be disappointed. J. J. Abrams has come on record to say that A New Hope is his favorite Star Wars movie, and it shows here. But for me, I went in to watch Star Wars, and by gods, Star Wars is what I got.

In fact, after two hours, if I’d walked out and been told the next one was playing right away, I would have happily walked right back in and taken my seat. Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, here are my thoughts on The Force Awakens summed up: Star Wars is back. It’s the best it’s been since Empire.

May the Force be with us all!

-Contributed by Benjamin Ghan

Hypermasculinity in the Jedi Order, or Why the Prequels Don’t Actually Suck All That Much

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I’d like to preface this by saying that a large majority of this analysis is just my interpretation. I frankly doubt that George Lucas, paragon of feminism (heavy sarcasm), actually considered feminist discourse while writing the Star Wars prequels, but it’s nice to imagine that he did.

Let’s take a look at the most iconic tragic hero of our age, often referenced in high school English classes in a futile attempt to relate to the Millennials: Anakin Skywalker. What was his fatal flaw—hubris? Jealousy? A lust for power? These ideas have all been looked at extensively, so let’s look instead at what pushed him over the edge: the Jedi Code. We constantly see Anakin agonizing over the rules that he is expected to follow—“I’m not the Jedi I should be,” he says.

Jedi are taught to control their feelings; they are taught that emotional bonds make you weak. They are forbidden to fall in love, and they are forbidden to feel anger or grief. And Anakin, the Chosen One, is expected to embody this philosophy. The inner angst that consumes Anakin is the fear that he’s not a good enough Jedi simply because he doesn’t reach these ridiculously high standards. He’s human! He can’t be expected not to feel emotions, to never feel anger or grief or love—no one can. It is clear how toxic it is for him to suppress these emotions—how it culminates in brash fits of rage and violence, and how it begins his descent into darkness. Really, it’s the Jedi Code’s narrow set of expectations that push Anakin over the edge.

When I think of these unattainable standards, this suppression of emotions that the Jedi are expected to achieve, the first things that come to mind are: “Be a man.” “Real men don’t cry.”  The similarities between the expectations of the Jedi Code and the standards that societal gender norms place on men are alarming.

There’s this toxic notion that a man isn’t supposed to be emotional, that he’s supposed to be strong and solid while a weepy woman cries on his shoulder. As if crying and being emotionally vulnerable make you “less of a man.” Hypermasculinity imposes a strict definition of how men should behave; this can result in pent-up anger and violence, and has a real effect on the mental health of men.

I would argue that hypermasculinity plays a role in the reception of the Star Wars prequels as a whole. These films are notorious for their bad reception, and are considered a bit of a joke among hardcore Star Wars fans.  But I would say that part of this negative view is due to the fact that they’re films in a genre that is traditionally considered a “man’s world,” and yet they focus on traditionally feminine ideas and themes.

Compared to the original trilogy, there is a clear narrative difference in the prequels. The original trilogy is very much centered on friendship and adventure, and revolves around interpersonal relationships—the most prominent being a father-son relationship. The conflict is external, with a force of evil that is eventually defeated by the hero. These are traditionally “masculine” themes.

In contrast, the prequels are much more focused on internal conflict. The main character frequently shows emotional vulnerability, which is a rare sight in male protagonists. Compared to Han Solo, that personification of bravado and manliness, Anakin’s character really does challenge gender norms. How often do you see the male character in a sci-fi being the romantic and sensitive one in a relationship? And yet Anakin is often interpreted as whiny and overdramatic.

The original trilogy is about adventure and comradery—this belongs to men. The prequels are about romance and heartbreak and vulnerability—this belongs to women. According to society, at least.

For a man to admit that he enjoys these types of films would be to admit to being “unmanly.” This is the same perception of masculinity that has categorized an entire genre of movies as “chick-flicks”—as if movies have genders. So men are more inclined to scoff at the prequels. People laugh at the mushy dialogue (I wouldn’t disagree with you there, but let’s look at the bigger picture) because that’s not what they expect from a male protagonist. It doesn’t help that, on top of this, a huge demographic of the prequel fandom is teenage girls. Of course anything that teenage girls enjoy is automatically looked down upon. There’s that wonderful fragile masculinity again.

So people are just inclined to hate the prequels. And I will admit that there are honest and valid critiques of the prequel trilogy. However, say what you will about the cringe-inducing dialogue, Hayden Christensen’s acting, or the entirety of Jar-Jar Binks, the prequels did one thing right. Returning to the Jedi Code’s black-and-white views, the prequel trilogy is interesting because it introduces complexity into the Star Wars universe. Is the world really split between good Jedi and evil Sith, as the original trilogy would have us believe? If the Jedi are enforcing a toxic philosophy allegorical to sexist gender norms in our world, if they are what push Anakin to the Dark Side, are they truly the perfect force of benevolence? Whether George Lucas intended it or not, the prequels call into question just how good the Jedi really are.

 

 

 

-Contributed by Komal Adeel

 

Lilo & Stitch: it only gets better

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Illustration by Bethany Pile

Check out Part One of this two-part blog series here!

Before we delve back into the serious stuff, let’s take a moment to admire the unique and colourful animation style of Lilo & Stitch. For the first time in decades, the directors chose to return to watercolour backgrounds as opposed to the typical solid colour of most of Disney’s current filmography. Watercolours were used to create a more storybook look as well as to recall the aesthetics of Disney’s Dumbo.

The animation style also differed from the standard Disney fare, being more reminiscent of director Chris Sanders’ personal drawing style, which is often described by his fellow animators as seeming to melt, as if the images were dripping. This effect gives us the chunky and gorgeous curves we see on all the characters (I’m looking at you, Nani).

Reportedly, Lilo & Stitch was also influenced by another one of our Spec faves: Hayao Miyazaki, who, according to director Dean Deblois, “creates genuine relationships in the realm of fantasy”. This inspiration is apparent in the complexity of the characters’ relationships to one another. Fun fact: Kiki’s Coffee Hut is named in loving tribute to Miyazaki’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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Nuanced Morality

The wonderful thing about this movie is the lack of “black and white” morality that is so predominant in films for kids. Too often, children’s media is excused for having poorly written, one-dimensional characters—something that is thoroughly criticized in most other genres. In mainstream film today, we demand well-written and complex female, queer, and ethnically diverse characters. Yet somehow we constantly excuse simplistic “good and evil” morality in films just because they are “made for kids”. Fiction is important because it allows us to see things that are not necessarily our personal reality, and to thereby gain empathy and understanding. The overwhelmingly reasonable characters and complex motivations and conflicts in Lilo & Stitch allow for a broader and more engaging experience.

Representation of Minorities

Although mainstream Hollywood seems to still be dragging its heels with good LGBTQ+ representation, films like The Danish Girl and About Ray, which premiered in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, signal hope for the future. Unfortunately, the casting of cisgender actors in these defining roles is a blatant indication that we must keep pushing forward. With luck, we can move toward a future where characters are not defined by their gender identity or sexual orientation—or are turned into a farce—but are seen as people first, their sexuality and gender a small part of who they are.

Considering the state of modern media today, it seems amazing that Disney included such an ambiguous and gender-fluid character as Pleakley over a decade ago and in a children’s film. Clearly identified with masculine pronouns and voiced by a male actor, Pleakley resists gender constrictions by dressing in traditionally feminine attire when on Earth. While his choice of disguises could be chalked up to a misguided understanding of Earth (which Pleakley clearly has), he is further shown to enjoy his wigs and make-up, and remains in them throughout the film. It’s not even a point of contention in the movie; no one at any point has a problem with the way Pleakley chooses to dress and behave. While I’m not saying that Lilo & Stitch is the best portrayal of casual LGBTQ+ visibility that I have ever seen (the only gender-fluid character is not from our planet, after all), Pleakley is nonetheless a positive presence in the film. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be reminded that one’s decisions about one’s body don’t have to involve everyone around them.

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The respectful and beautiful way that the film portrays Hawaii also deserves a mention here. While Lilo & Stitch is set on the island of Kauai, it doesn’t exploit stereotypes in order to tell its story. There are examples of beautiful Hawaiian language songs, although they are not the only music that we encounter (Elvis makes numerous welcome and hilarious appearances throughout the film). The traditional-sounding songs serve to set the stage, but do not dominate the story as a whole.

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Similar is the treatment of traditional Hawaiian activities such as hula dancing and surfing, which are present but do not detract from the point of the story. What I mean to say is: Lilo does not have to win a hula competition to earn enough money for the surfing team; these activities are used to build on the characters, not the other way around.

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Furthermore, for the most part, the Hawaiian characters are played by Hawaiian actors. Tia Carrere (Nani) and Jason Scott Lee (David) are Hawaiian-born and Hawaiian-raised, respectively. For a film that doesn’t visibly show its actors, it is impressive that the casting directors took the care to cast actors with a relationship to the islands. The actors even helped to rewrite some of their dialogue using correct Hawaiian colloquialisms. The natural traces of an accent in their voices lend a realistic feel to the atmosphere of the film that is subtle but extremely effective.

Positive Romantic Relationships

On the subject of David Kawena, everyone take a good long look, because he demonstrates what you should be looking for in a partner. First and foremost a good friend to Nani and Lilo, David doesn’t try to hide his romantic interest in Nani, but neither does he resent her for being too busy to date him. Instead, he finds productive ways to be a positive force in her life, such as by cheering up the sisters when they are feeling down, or by helping Nani to find a job when she is at her most desperate. He seems to truly care about Nani, as a person and as a friend first. Theirs is a truly good example of a mature and sincere relationship, and anyone waffling about in the murky swamps of romance should take note.

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What my gushing boils down to is: don’t waste your time indecisively flipping through Netflix. Do yourself a favour—watch this film and drown in a torrent of happy-sad tears with extreme satisfaction.

-Contributed by Amy Wang