Available on Netflix
When does an homage stop being an homage and become its own thing? It’s an important question for something like Stranger Things – and its latest edition, appropriately called Stranger Things 3, rather than Stranger Things season 3 – which is a loving tribute to not only the films and TV shows of the 80s, but pretty much the entire decade, too.
Starting out as almost a recently discovered time capsule of a lost Stephen King TV series, albeit one with insanely high production values for the time, Stranger Things perfectly captured the innocence of 80s childhood and the weirdness and niceness of small town life. Playing with as many conventions as it also subverted, it caused genuine nostalgia for a time it had never inhabited. And although a touch scary at times, it was also genuinely beautiful, too.
If Stranger Things was Alien, Stranger Things 2 was Aliens – deliberately so, right down to adding Paul Reiser to the cast. Trouble was, while it was still very good and a slight retread of the first season, it somehow lost a lot of that innocence that had so weaved its magic on the audience. Sure, the kids were growing up, but it all felt a lot nastier and everything felt more like synthesised 80s, rather than original 80s, right down to the synthesiser music.
What then for season 3? More of the same or something different? Or worse still, Alien3?
Stranger Things 3 moves everything along slightly. It’s summer 1986 in Hawkins and there are no signs of any terrible lurking evil. Instead, it’s all about boys, girls, jobs and teenage rebellion.
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is still living with Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), but he’s not so keen on how much time she’s spending with Mike (Finn Wolfhard). But he is keen on spending more time with Joyce (Winona Ryder).
Meanwhile, popular boy Steve (Joe Keery) is having to work in the ice cream parlour in the new Starcourt mall. He’s still a bit hung up on Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who’s now interning at the local paper, but he seems to be having plenty of inadvertent fun with brainy co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke).
Of course, not everything is at it seems and pretty soon, their lives are being turned upside down by none other than… the Russians!
Slightly spoilery review after the jump.
Stranger The Things
Stranger Things 3 is actually a delightful halfway house between the first and second seasons that also tries to do something a bit different this time, too. If Stranger Things was Alien and Stranger Things 2 was Aliens, Stranger Things 3 is The Thing. It’s even got the poster to prove it. It’s not quite as terrifying, but it makes a good effort.
The good thing is it’s also The Terminator, Evil Dead, Red Dawn and a whole bunch of other 80s movies. It’s also happy to reference the likes of Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and The War of the Worlds, as well as do its own thing. This isn’t just a homage – while it’s quite a lot like an awful lot of things, it’s not very like very much at all.
Summarising the plot in a sentence would be quite easy, since it’s really quite a slight affair with a lot of running around. There’s the building of the threat, investigation of the threat, revelation of the threat then defeat of the threat. Nevertheless, doing that is quite reductive, since Stranger Things 3 is really all about relationships and change.
There are the usual relationships I’ve already mentioned, which can be surprisingly effecting. There’s an essence of familiarity to it all, since the character relationships already exist and the show is consistent to them. But the show also builds on them and grows them, as the characters themselves grow.
Nevertheless, there are also surprisingly odd choices running alongside those, such as paranoid journalist Brett Gelman (Go On, Fleabag)’s buddy-buddy relationship with Russian scientist Alec Utgoff (The Wrong Mans).
Indeed, one of the show’s highlights is the relationship between Keery and Hawke, which defies the show’s usual acceptance of 80s conventions to become something decidedly ahistorical for a movie of that time.
80s – to the max
But at the same time, this is decidedly a show that relishes its 80s’ setting and tries its hardest to echo that time in thought, word and deed. While not as successful as the first season at this, it’s a whole lot better than the second season and to its credit, it picks some hard targets, not just the low-hanging fruit.
Sure, it’s easy to spot that the unstoppable Russian (actually, Ukranian) bad guy is doing The Terminator and it being 1986, Back to the Future is in there. Yet Stranger Things 3 is also keen to drop in references to Phoebe Cates and The Neverending Story, for example. So you get that mix of the 80s tourism for the younger audience members and the “you had to be there to get it” for the older members.
Even so, writer/directors the Duffer Brothers have enough insight to talk about Back to the Future as though it’s not a big thing yet and the plot might actually be hard to follow for someone who’s never seen it before and not been versed in it all his life. It’s little touches that enable the show to be both meta and yet also authentic.
Giving us a slightly different, slightly Cronenbergian monster from its Kingian predecessors (there are hints of The Fly) is a good move that prevents the show from being repetitive. Reducing Eleven’s omnipotence also removes easy solutions from the story.
All of which are some good choices. But there are some bum notes. Episode six is both terrible and great. It’s a little gorier at times than I was comfortable with, ensuring that the series carries a 15-certificate. Cary Elwes as the town’s mayor seems to have crept in from an 80s sitcom. Some of the characters from previous seasons are under-served compared to Hawke’s character, for example. And Priah Ferguson’s 10-year-old irritation takes up way too much of the show’s surprisingly short eight-episode runtime.
But largely, this is a worthy addition to the series that manages to innovate and extend, rather than simply regurgitate. Almost everyone gets a chance to shine, there are new themes and it’s at times so beautifully nostalgic, I almost cried.