Stranger Things 3 (2019) review

High gym socks! Big hair! Back to the Future! The 80s are back, baby, and Stranger Things 3 hits another great season out of the park harder than Steve Harrington and his beloved bat. On par with the great, but undeniably inferior Stranger Things 2, neither quite hit the Christmas lit heights of the stunning original. That said, there’s much to enjoy here, from perhaps the show’s best camera work yet, to brilliant character moments like the adorable friendship of Max and Eleven. Looking past surface level gripes, the series remains strong, though potential cracks in the (bedroom) wall show their monstrous face, suggesting that the finale might ultimately go out with a Demodog’s whimper, rather than turning the world upside down.

The writing for Stranger Things was perhaps the most applauded element of its first season. The tight structure, organic character growth, and concurrent interweaving stories blew audiences away. These achievements have somewhat waned, and while certain characters are awarded satisfying arcs, such as the unexpected but welcome team of Steve, Dustin, Robin, and Erica, others like Hopper and Joyce feel redundant. Additionally, not all characters are treated equally, as ‘leads’ like Lucas and Will serve little purpose to the narrative, acting more as 80s set dressing. The season long narrative is the weakest element, with a flimsy plot involving Russians and the return of the Lovecraftian ghoul, The Mind Flayer that feels rushed, stereotypical, and less thought out than its predecessors.

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However, despite a weaker script, the show remains startlingly endearing. The characters are so well defined that saying goodbye to anyone feels like sending off an old friend, and is genuinely affecting. The actors bring their A game, particularly the insanely talented adolescents, with Millie Bobbie Brown as a stand out. Her portrayal of Eleven continues to evolve from a reserved curiosity, to a well rounded person trying to find her place in the world. Fan favourite Steve Harrington, played by Joe Keery, boasts the show’s best written character arc which this season only makes him more likeable. Perhaps Steve’s former unpleasantness is channeled into Mike and Hopper via the Mind Flayer, as the writers lean further into rude and mean-spirited dialogue for both, with no apologies.

Visually, the show continues to look demo-gorgeous. The muted blues and greens from season one are all but replaced by garish set pieces like the Fun Fair and Mall, which become hubs of the season. The transformation is welcome, though, as these set pieces lead to wonderful shots, such as a confrontation with the big bad in a stunning wide shot in the Mall showing the scale of the creature as it looms over El, mirroring its presence over Will last season. Even the less action packed moments boast wonderful cinematography, such as a shot of the town behind Dustin’s radio tower, which is filled with breathtaking colours reminiscent of an impressionist painting. The use of a brighter colour palette gives Hawkins a more modernised, neon vibe, reflecting its budding industrialisation over the past year. Though the upside down itself isn’t seen, darker scenes boast better visibility than the strobe heavy lighting of The Hawkins Lab, with a particular highlight being the beautifully shot destruction of Castle Byers in the rain; one of Will’s few character developing moments.

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Of course, the 80s references remain plentiful and some of the most attractive elements of the series. Praise must go to the costume designers, set designers, and hair and make up people, who bring such authenticity to the period that you might find yourself squealing with nostalgia at the level of attention to detail. Of course, the narrative is also driven by classic filmic influences; if season one was IT meets E.T, season two was Jurassic Park and The Exorcist, then season three is Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob. This is reflected by a darker tone, which, contrasting the colour palette, embraces its horror roots more than ever before. Bodies explode, limbs are sliced open, and fertiliser is eaten. Regardless of the overall sloppier narrative, the Duffer Brothers succeed in raising the stakes to an appropriate level. The only worry comes from that post credits sequence which hints at a more global conflict, far from the setting we fell in love with.

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One slight disappointment is the music, both in the original score, and the soundtrack. First, the latter. While tracks like ‘Can’t Fight this Feeling’ are wonderful throwbacks, many are random inclusions, without much rhyme or reason. Wham’s classic ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ is wasted, and compared to the excellent additions last season which complimented the action on screen, such as ‘Runaway’ or ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’, there just seems to be less thought put in here. The reprise of fan favourites ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’ and ‘Heroes’ from past seasons also feel like pandering, and aren’t organically incorporated into the story. This could’ve been a forgivable offence had this season was the show’s last, but as we know there’s at least one more, it’s a tad self indulgent. There is, however, one saving grace in the form of a certain 80s cartoon theme, which is used to near perfection.

Sadly, the OST shares similar problems. While more than serviceable, there are no tracks that stand out in the same way as the melancholic gorgeousness of last season’s ‘Eulogy.’ The synth, Carpenter inspired score with its weird instruments, long notes, and 16 bit sound is still a marvel to listen to though, and fits the tone of its on screen visuals better than any other show on television. One stand out moment in the score, again, comes from a use of Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future composition, which is used to a hilarious end, effectively heightening both comedy and tension, as well as paying an obvious homage to perhaps the most quintessential 80s flick. Great Scott!

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All in all, Stranger Things continues to be satisfying, if boasting more than eleven issues. But, the third instalment doesn’t drop the eggos, and the franchise’s credibility remains intact. While neither sequels have come close to the mind bending brilliance of the original, the third season offers great effects, cinematography, and heart, from writers who genuinely seem to care for these characters. Stranger Things 3 might better be described as a collection of fantastic moments, amongst a clumsier narrative that struggles to keep all the pieces on the D and D board moving. Though far from perfect, I’m both cautiously intrigued and excited to see where the people of Hawkins go next. Hopefully with more coffee and contemplation, the final season will go out with a telekinetic powered bang.

★★★★

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