Between the launch of Stranger Things 3 on Netflix tomorrow and Donald Trump’s military hardware-heavy celebration, Fourth of July 2019 is going to feel a lot like a throwback to the closing years of the Cold War.
However, unlike those now seemingly almost balmy days of the Reagan Era, it’s the U.S. President going full Politburo parade on the National Mall, and the return of the Duffer Brothers’ Upside Down has loaded up its own narrative DeLorean with more plutonium than Dr. Emmett Brown was ever able to get from the Libyans in Back to the Future.
With that, unless you want to read a bunch of filler, there isn’t really much more I can say about Stranger Things 3 except that it’s back bigger than ever, though is has lost some of the charm of the original premise and premiere back in July 2016.
Now, not to say that Stranger Things 3 has drained the nostalgia well completely dry or gone all ’80s Ready Player One style — it hasn’t. The series executive produced by Shawn Levy and now Cary Elwes starring still has less CGI overall than one minute of that soulless Steven Spielberg washout. However, with no spoilers intended, the artfully constructed saga, with well-considered calls back to the near-perfect first season, suffers from being entombed like the basement of the Hawkins National Laboratory by its own once again increased budget ambitions.
There are other debilitating ambitions in play here, too. In the one of the simply silly aspects of the tentpole mind-meld that has superpowered-, sci-fi- and supernatural-fueled Hollywood in full Borg mode the past decade, Netflix has basically banned discussion of what actually occurs during the summer of 1985 in Hawkins, Indiana.
Unabashedly hoping to mitigate any critical and spoiler blast radius for its own summer blockbuster, the streamer leaned on critics not to “disclose specific storyline information, including episodic spoiler information.” Which is fair enough, but then micromanaging Netflix followed with an absurd list of 17 specific plot points it did not want reviewers to “mention or allude to.”
Gutting most significant analysis of the eight new episodes of the global sensation led by Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour and Finn Wolfhard and playing on a pack mentality to stay in favor with the Reed Hastings-run company, the sprawling restrictions reek more of something Michael Deaver would have tried to bully the White House press pool with back in the day over Reagan’s latest verbal misstep. Or, to be truly blunt, it’s a lot like the discovery cul-de-sac of Charlie Kessler’s now shuttered plagiarism lawsuit against the Duffer Brothers over where the idea for Stranger Things came from.
All of which is a real shortsighted shame because with one hell of a finale and the addition of an excellent Maya Hawke, this Stranger Things is a pretty great endgame, whether there is a Season 4 to come or not.
With all that I can’t say (some of which happens mere minutes into the first episode and some of which is almost as incidental as the ongoing New Coke joke of the season), there’s no real reason I can offer you about how Stranger Things 3 gets from Point A to a Cold War Point Z. After the occasional plot potholes of 2017’s Season 2, you have to trust me that the Duffers and Netflix have learned a lesson or two the right way. The overuse of special effects aside, they’ve rightly decided to stick to their core strengths instead of trying to flex too many new muscles.
At the same time, the creators and the streamer also recognized the rare benefit of working with a cast that is literally growing up before our eyes in a time when a lot of us were kids.
Yes, there is ever quickening repartee and stifled sexual tensions between a reenergized Ryder and Harbour’s now parenting Sheriff Hopper, but the move towards the angst of adolescence in the age of The Smiths, The Cure and mallrats for Brown’s Eleven, Wolfhard’s Mike, Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin and relative newcomer Sadie Sink’s Max is where the Demogorgon really hits the road.
So, there are a number of elements in Stranger Things 3 that are almost as over the top as Trump’s Leonid Brezhnev homage shindig tomorrow. Beyond that, at the heart of the world of Upside Down, things strange and not, are still alright – for new fans and old.
And, to name-check a certain Motley Crue song from 1985, that’s very home sweet home.