Stranger Things Season 3 review: Netflix sci-fi horror series keeps the laughs and scares coming in equal measure
Stranger Things 3 pays homage to the '80s while simultaneously carving out its own unique place in our hearts, leaving you in a warm summer afterglow.
Stranger Things 3 is everything you loved about the first season without the misfires from the second
Season 3 will please the show's existing fanbase without alienating those new to it. And that's part of why the show works.
Underneath the murk, the scares, the blood, gore and darkness, lies a Technicolor heart of goofy fun and sweet nostalgia.
Note: This review of Stranger Things Season 3 is 100 percent spoiler-free.
With the arrival of Captain Marvel earlier this year, decade nostalgia was officially on schedule to move from the '80s to the '90s. After all, we had reached peak '80s nostalgia with Ready Player One. But the Gen-Xers are making sure it endures a while longer, messing up Hollywood’s official time table.
Now, as we return once again to Hawkins, Indiana — a town of Spielbergian thrills and Kingian chills — for a third season of Stranger Things, it is official: the '80s are the ultimate comfort food to nurse our current anxieties. And if you thought we have run out of '80s things to parody, pastiche and plagiarise, our lovable nerds are here to take you to the new suburban shopping mall, argue over Slurpee flavours and gush over Back to the Future — all soundtracked to a variety of synthpop hits.
Stranger Things 3 pays homage to the '80s while simultaneously carving out its own unique place in our hearts, leaving you in a warm summer afterglow. It has all the essential requisites to make a “Stranger Things Bingo Drinking Game” out of it: Adorable Dustin moments? Check. Unadulterated nerd porn moments? Check. Erica says something sassy? Check. Max says something sassy? Check. Super-secretive shady government programme? Check. People in sinister-looking Hazmat suits? Check. El going all Jean Grey? Obviously. Will it give you the inescapable urge to ship characters together? Of course.
Will you end up binge-watching it? Hell yes.
It is everything you loved about the first season without the misfires from the second — and plenty more. The laughs and scares keep coming in equal measure. The first few episodes give you the standard "Here's-what-everyone-is-up-to" scenes before introducing the latest threat from the Upside Down. Despite a somewhat uneven start, it masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a bitchin', emotionally-charged climax.
It has been eight months since Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) valiantly sealed off the portal to the Upside Down. The kids have grown into teens but remain in a state of arrested development. Hormones and romance test the AV Club’s dynamic as some transition from their Dungeons & Dragons days to Spin the bottle-type kissing games. Like in Season 2, they are split up into smaller groups before the inevitable reunion.
Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) pick up where things left off last season; Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and El can't stop sucking face, much to the dismay of dad Hopper (David Harbour). Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from summer camp, claiming he has a girlfriend who is "hotter than Phoebe Cates" (though no one believes she exists). This leaves poor Will (Noah Schnapp), who cannot believe his friends would rather "swap spit with girls" than play D&D.
Steve Harrington's (Joe Keery) bouffant hair is luscious as ever — except when it is shamefully concealed by a sailor hat he is forced to wear at his summer job at the ice cream parlour, Scoops Ahoy. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) spend the summer together as interns at the local newspaper, where the latter is forced to endure some truly awful hazing in a toxic male-dominated workplace.
Moving onto the boomers: Joyce (Winona Ryder) is struggling with more trauma in the wake of Bob's death and she now obsessively believes magnets are the harbingers of death; Hopper plays the protective dad struggling to keep El and Mike's relationship from moving to PG territory. People have been rooting for Joyce and Hopper to pair up since Season 1 and the will-they-won't-they dynamic continues. Thankfully, we have PI Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) to tell it like it is as always.
Max’s obnoxious stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) gets ogled by the bored housewives of Hawkins while Mike and Nancy’s mom, Karen (Cara Buono), finds herself drawn to him even more in an age-inappropriate subplot. All these tentacled subplots are however resolved in a more assured manner than they were in Season 2.
We are introduced to a few new characters: Cary Elwes as the opportunistic Mayor Kline; Jake Busey as Nancy's unpleasant colleague, Bruce; and Maya Hawke as Robin, Steve’s affable, no-nonsense colleague — who is the clear standout and a worthy addition to the Stranger Things universe..
Season 3 has plenty of talking points and meme-worthy moments that should keep social media quite busy. We see Steve not only embrace his role as Dustin's babysitter but his rapport with Robin provide some of the comedic highlights of the season. It is also a refreshing delight to see the new season paint El and Max's relationship as a celebration of female friendship — without any of the undertones of petty jealousy we saw in the previous instalment.
The Duffer Brothers offer a darkly evocative recreation of a time and a place that continues to be romanticised on screen. They paint the picture of '80s suburbia cinematically to take viewers back to their own childhood, capturing every feeling and nuance of the era as it was rendered on screen, rather than as it really was. And they do it in a methodical and clinical fashion like it were a period piece.
They take plenty of time to luxuriate in the world they have created — filled with all their childhood obsessions. The first two seasons included nods to The Goonies (close-knit gang of kids going off on adventures), Stand by Me (trekking along train tracks), Ghostbusters (their Halloween costumes), Alien (Dart shedding its skin Xenomorph-style), Cujo (demodogs), A Nightmare on Elm Street (the Mind Flayer's Freddy Krueger-like abilities), Firestarter (girl with psychic powers), and most of all E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (bike chase scene, hazmat suits, El getting a makeover, etc). The new season blends the comedy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the creature horror of The Thing, the gooey gore of The Blob, the relentless thrills of The Terminator, and the Cold War-era vibes of Day of the Dead as El and gang try to save their town from a Red Dawn-like invasion.
Rather than resist the tropes that science fiction and horror genres have amassed, Stranger Things season 3 embraces them fully. The storytelling and world-building is in fact nourished by this delicious stew of '80s references and Easter Eggs. It is derivative as always but never dull.
The music choices range from clichéd (Madonna’s 'Material Girl' soundtracks El and Max's shopping trip) to borderline alternative (The Cars' 'Moving in Stereo' plays as Billy walks in slo-mo past the ogling moms of Hawkins). Also, watch out for the sweetest — and most untimely — romantic duet version of Limahl's 'The NeverEnding Story'.
As Stranger Things has come into its own and permeated the pop culture zeitgeist, the show has now started paying homage to itself in service of its devoted fan base. Fans have been demanding a more substantial role for Lucas’ scene-stealing sister Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson) — and in Season 3, we get more sass than we asked for.
Some of the plot points in Stranger Things 3 will leave you questioning the logistics and logic behind them all. The Duffers also appear to have got bogged down a little in their own mythology; their creatures seem to share some kinship with those from Alien, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and more. While it is anyone's guess how the biology or geology of Upside Down really works, the creatures do keep our nerves far too jangled to care.
Underneath the murk, the creepy-crawly scares, the blood, gore and darkness, lies a Technicolor heart of goofy fun and sweet nostalgia. Those who have seen all the films it references will have an idea of what is coming up to a certain point — after which, all bets are off. Though it does not break any new ground, it works well enough as a genre entry that does not try to completely reinvent the wheel.
Stranger Things 3 will please the existing fan base of the show without alienating those new to it. And that is part of why the show works. Like they say, third time's the charm.
Stranger Things 3 is now streaming on Netflix.
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