Did you love Alien? Or did you prefer Aliens? They are, of course, two films with a lot of similarities, including the fact Sigourney Weaver and the same HR Giger-created alien feature in both of them. Yet they also have quite different sensibilities: Alien is a haunted house movie in which a danger that the protagonists have to avoid might be round every corner; Aliens, on the other hand, is a war movie in which the dangers keep coming at the protagonists who have to do what they can to survive, largely by running away.
I point this out for a couple of reasons. The first is that Stranger Things is back. Netflix occasionally likes to dump shows like The OA into our laptops with zero fanfare and so it was with Stranger Things, which popped into our ‘New on Netflix’ queues way back in July 2016 without so much as a kazoo to announce the fact. Indeed, all I managed to get to say about it before I went on holiday was:
I might do a longer review of this when I get back since although I paid almost minimal attention to it while it was in production and only reluctantly decided I’d give it a try this week for the sake of completeness, I’m so glad I did, as it’s an almost painfully beautiful, near-perfect recreation of the 80s, as well as 80s genre movies and TV, taking in everything from ET and Goonies through to The Thing and D.A.R.Y.L. I loved pretty much every second of it, from its title sequence and music through to the plot itself, which even though you can probably guess most of it just by extrapolating from other shows or anything by Stephen King, is delightful, with an innocence you just don’t get any more. One of my favourite TV things this year, give it a go, as it’s only eight episodes and Winona Ryder’s in it. A second season has already been commissioned.
And so it came to pass that it was one of my top shows of last year.
Now we have Stranger Things 2 (not just ‘the second season’ of Stranger Things in case you’re wondering why you can’t spot it on your Netflix iOS app), which arrives with vastly more trumpeting following the success of Stranger Things. The show follows on a year after the original with the same cast as before and the same plots as before, too. Our heroes are still at middle school in Hawkins, Indiana (that’s probably somewhere near Eerie, I’m guessing). Will’s back, of course, as is the thing he coughed up at the end of Stranger Things. Psychokinetic lab experiment Eleven isn’t back, but she’s not too far away, it’s safe to say, given she’s front and centre in the poster and the trailer.
The hole in the world that leads to the parallel dimension known as the ‘Upside Down’ is back, too. That’s not good, mind, because although the ‘demogorgon’ of the first season is deceased, there’s a whole lot more on the other side of the Hawkins gateway to the Upside Down and it wants to come through. Worryingly, not only can Will see it, it can see him, too.
But it’s also the start of a new school year, and there are new arrivals in town, including a couple of uber-cool siblings from California, one of whom is called ‘Mad Max’ and soon draws the boys’ attention. Will our young heroes and heroines survive not just whatever comes out of the Upside Down for them but the social inequities of middle school life and first loves? And will they ever tell everyone what happened to poor old Babs?
Some spoilers (although I’ll do my best to avoid them) after this lovely trailer and the jump.
The other reason that I mention Alien and Aliens is that Stranger Things 2 is to Stranger Things as Aliens is to Alien. It’s a bigger version of the same story that ups the ante by giving us a whole army of bad guys to oppose the goodies, as well as an ultimate ‘queen’.
And, of course, as this is Stranger Things, it knows this. It knows you know this, too, so it actually features a scene pretty much ripped from Aliens and even hires Paul Reiser to replace Matthew Modine as the chief government scientist of the piece. Sure, everyone mainly knows Paul Reiser these days from comedies like Mad About You or possibly My Two Dads (but definitely not The Paul Reiser Show), but he was also the slimy corporate bloke in Aliens.
But just as Alien and Aliens have different sensibilities and therefore different fans, so I imagine Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 will have different fans, too. See, while I loved Stranger Things, I found Stranger Things 2 to be nowhere near as good, but maybe because it’s different, rather than inferior.
The things I loved about Stranger Things were its innocence, its joy in its young stars and stories, its painstaking recreation of both the 80s and 80s films, its homages and its warmth. Sure, it referenced other things, such as Under The Skin, and the production values were a lot better, but it embodied the 80s so well, so precisely, it could almost have dropped from that decade as though left in a time capsule, only to have been dug up last year. Could you imagine a moustached, nerdy science teacher being the unequivocally cool hero of something made now? Me neither.
Stranger Things 2 could not have been made in the 80s by any stretch of the imagination. For starters, the innocence has gone. There’s a lot more swearing, the kids mostly squabble among themselves rather than be ‘best buddies forever’ and there are scenes that owe a lot more to 18-certificate movies of the 70s such as Attack on Precinct 13, The Evil Dead and The Exorcist, as well as the body-horror of David Cronenberg’s movies, than they do to Goonies say.
Sure, Stranger Things was very much about pre-pubescent children whereas Stranger Things 2 is all about puberty and discovering both oneself and the opposite sex (there were no gay people in the 80s, obvs), so naturally it’s going to have a different tone. It also doesn’t quite forget that original tone, such as when one of our heroes adopts a creature called ‘Dart’. But the simple warmth of small town life and childhood have largely gone from the show.
It also feels more like an 80s-set drama than a genuine piece of 80s entertainment. The soundtrack is frequently modern retro electronic music, rather than something Tangerine Dream could have created, and there’s copious amounts of CGI to create the monsters of the piece.
Stranger Things 2
On the other hand, maybe you like that. Maybe you didn’t like Stranger Things because it was too nostalgic, too bounden to whatever Spielberg had done in ET to be its own thing. In which case, you could well prefer Stranger Things 2. The show does after all have its own strengths.
Principal among these is the fact that unlike Stranger Things, it is genuinely frightening and horrifying at times, which might float your boat more than it did mine. Part and parcel of this is new Big Bad the Shadow Monster, who owes a debt to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, Arrival and Outcast all at the same time.
But the show is also interested in the rehabilitation of cult actors. Reiser gets to redeem himself for his Aliens treachery after all these years, while Sean Astin (24, Lord of the Rings) gets to be Winona Ryder’s boyfriend and a proper hero, even though he works in Radio Shack and knows how to program in BASIC.
Stranger Things 2 also continues to defy standard dramatic conventions in pleasing ways. Unloved boyfriends aren’t all douches, real douches might actually be douches for a reason, shadowy government scientists might not all be evil and maybe girls can be heroic, use guns and join the boys’ gang, too. Indeed, the arrival of ‘Mad Max’ is very welcome addition to the show’s set-up.
Plus Eleven is the coolest, particularly her arrival in the penultimate episode, but also in the ultimate showdown. Shame about her haircut, though.
To a certain extent, Stranger Things 2‘s problems stem from not being able to keep all its plot in its small town box any more. Having introduced Eleven’s mother last season, naturally Eleven’s going to want to find out about her this season. Having had the supernatural kill off chunks of a small town’s population, obviously there are going to be ramifications to that, such as traumatised and inconsolable parents and an inevitable government cover-up.
That means that several of the initial episodes that could have been devoted to more childish fun and nostalgia end up getting devoted to sadness, dealing with the fall-out of season one and plots that won’t lead anywhere until next season. It’s not really until the fourth or fifth episode, in fact, that the show kicks into action.
Certainly, the producers have their eyes on season 3, most notably – and already infamously – with episode 7, which has almost zero relevance to season 2 and is again about Eleven’s family. Sure, it continues Eleven’s journey and arguably sets her back on the right path to being a heroine after stepping away from that path at the start of season. It also sets up the show for bigger things in the following season.
But it’s also a diversion from the fact that the Shadow Monster gets defeated in the exact same way the Demogorgon was defeated in season 1 and that had Eleven been around for the rest of the season, it would have been about five episodes shorter and more obviously a repeat of the first season.
A step down
Overall, though, Stranger Things 2 is perhaps just a different beast, rather than an inferior one. There are welcome additions and what it does, it does well. The cast continue to shine and the adults get a look-in. However, I’m not feeling the love for it that I did for Stranger Things but perhaps that’s not surprising – your first love is always the most powerful.