I’ve covered the first three series of Stranger Things in an earlier posting, but the fourth series, a whopping 13 hours including a two and a half hour finale, probably merits an entry of its own. The Duffer Brothers beloved Netflix fantasy might have seemed like a copycat Stephen King on first appearance, but well-cast leads, 80’s nostalgia, iconic needle drops, a strong feminist subtext and some genuinely fearsome monsters seemed to hit a sweet-spot for streaming audiences. So much that the season two episode-drop left cinema halls empty, allowing the streaming tail to briefly wag the dog of cinema. Even the most pumped-up series sag after a while, but what’s remarkable about Stranger Things 4 is that this was easily the tightest entry of the expanding franchise so far.
We pick up the threads from the shopping-mall carnage of the first film; Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is heartbroken by the loss of Hopper (David Harbour), but he somehow turns up in a Russian gulag and manages to get a message back to her. Joyce sets off in pursuit, and that leaves the kids to their own devices, and without a family home to defend, Stranger Things 4 breaks out of the Hawkins, Indiana setting of the first three series. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) faces up to her backstory as the experiment of Dr Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who (it isn’t a huge spoiler to reveal) turns out to be her actual father, and a final confrontation ensues. Meanwhile the gang make various forays into the murky world of the Upside Down, where trouble-maker Eddie Munsen (Joseph Quinn) is in conflict with the monstrous Vecna and his psychic mind-flayer. Can the gang save Eddie and keep the Lovecraftian monsters of the Upside Down firmly out of our world?
With a bloated budget bigger than any movie out this year, a massive, globe-trotting, inter-dimensional canvas and a sprawling run-time, Stranger Things 4 should be winding-down by now, but it’s fair to say that rising stars Sadie Sink, Finn Wolfhard, Charlie Heaton and Gaten Materazzo are now indelibly burnt into the pop-culture consciousness. They’re supported by some smart writing; the way that the kids use a video-store computer to track down their prey based on the titles of his rentals is ingenious, and clichés are avoided throughout. But the structuring and weighting of the various plot-lines is next-level stuff; each story is engaging, and while over-stuffed, Stranger Things 4 is all killer and no filler.
As with the recent film version of Stephen King’s IT, the magic of the Stranger Things franchise is likely to dissipate as the kids grow older and the lightning-in-a-bottle appeal of the original line-up fades. But if the first three seasons were remarkably consistent, Stranger Things 4 is likely to be the franchise peak, with spin-off projects, stage-plays and all kinds of other continuations unlikely to hold the same appeal. If nothing else, it’s great to see 80’s stars like Ryder, Modine and ‘My Two Dads’ Paul Reiser not just back in action, but front and centre in a story that undoubtedly and deservedly appeals to kids of all ages.