Stranger Things 2 Review
When there's something strange in your neighbourhood...
There's a lovely little fourth-wall break in Stranger Things 2, a meta-address where one of the kids from the original party of four, Lucas, tries to recap the first season to a newcomer. “Sounds kinda derivative,” is their sceptical response, and it's funny because it's true. Stranger Things was stylishly produced and well cast, but it was low on originality. Anybody with even a passing interest in the works of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter could play Spot The Influence Bingo with this show and have a full card by the end of the first ep.
There's nothing new under the sun, though, and we loved what the Duffer Brothers delivered regardless. What one person might call an unoriginal pastiche of references, another person could appreciate as sheer nostalgia fuel – an '80s love-letter gone overboard into gushing marriage proposal territory.
Rather than take a different approach, Stranger Things 2 doubles right the hell down. Season two is still very obviously centred on Spielberg/King/Carpenter in terms of its ’80s references, but the pool of inspiration has been widened to include the works of John Landis, Ivan Reitman and James Cameron. Honestly, it's nearly impossible to miss the love directed at the latter director in this. Not only do you get two moments where The Terminator is conspicuously put on a pedestal – via a movie billboard and a TV trailer – but Paul Reiser joins the cast to essentially replay his Carter Burke role from Aliens. And, yes, of course his scenes involve motion tracking radars and grainy head cam feeds of soldiers dropped into “some real purty shit”.
On the Spielberg side of things, we've got a dash of Gremlins thrown into the pot. Dustin stumbles across the cute, not-of-this-world creature that Will upchucked at the close of last season. Unbeknownst to the rest of the quadrumvirate, he takes in the little slug beast, D'Artagnan, and thus begins a comical thread devoted to carnivorous monster husbandry. Meanwhile, Will is having creature problems of his own; his intensifying visions of a gargantuan beast clearly mean he hasn't made a clean exit from the 'Upside Down' parallel dimension. Apparently, said rift in space-time can't be closed by a new breed of G-men operating at the Hawkins black site facility, though Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Will's mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), have a tenuous secret agreement with the authorities. They're allowing Will to be used as a guinea pig (up to a point) and in return, nobody gets rubbed out by the CIA.
What the suits don't know is that Jim Hopper has found and hidden Eleven, their telekinetic weapon child gone wild. El's journey in this season centres around dealing with (literal) cabin fever, putting up with the half-arsed parenting of Hopper, and deciding whether she's just better off finding people in her past to shack up with. Oh, she also has to deal with the emotion of jealousy for the first time. Via astral projections from afar, she can see that her old party of friends assume she's dead, or lost, and they're entertaining the idea of replacing her with Maxine (Sadie Sink). She's the sassy Dig Dug expert newcomer from California who's flanked by her abusive older step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Basically, he's an alpha-douche out to dethrone everybody's favourite hair model, Steve (Joe Kerry).
While Steve's preoccupied with keeping his high school crown, and his locks luscious, he takes his eyes off the prize with Nancy (Natalia Dyer). It's a rookie mistake, considering he barely held her interest in a season one love triangle that included Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Nancy and Jon buddy up when the pragmatic Steve refuses to give Barb's parents some much-needed closure (note: she was the high-schooler who was cruel offed by the Demogorgon monster...aaand then she was basically forgotten about by everybody). It's good to see the Duffers addressing this loose end. It's even better to see that the solution to her death involves the kids leaking info to a wacky conspiracy theorist, Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman).
A good follow up season needs to address any issues in the previous effort, and in general, go bigger across the board. I feel the former has been looked into, most notably: this time around there are a greater number of female characters with complex motivations that are delved into, plus the Duffers dial their '80s enthusiasm back to sly references, as opposed to carbon copying plots. Going big has most definitely been achieved, thanks to an obvious increase in special effects production values, and some big-name casting. Speaking of which, Sean Astin (who, fittingly, is of The Goonies fame) really knocks it out of the park as Bob, the awkward step-dad-wannabe of Mike and Jonathan.
There's always a great trepidation to be felt when watching a follow-up to a piece of media you really liked. Historically speaking, sequels bomb much more than they succeed. Stranger Things 2 is the exception to the rule: it's a Terminator 2. This D&D-obsessed party of kids from Hawkins still have all their old season one magic. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's increased in potency (from +10 to +20). Come on, Netflix. Green light a Season 3 already.