Stranger Things 2 Review
Trick or Treat?
Stranger Things 2 is finally here and, as we catch-up with the original gang, there are new faces and a larger story that turns everything up to Eleven.When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix in the summer of 2016 it caught most people by surprise. The series was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as The Duffer Brothers, who tapped into a growing nostalgia for the 1980s. The brothers themselves were too young to have actually experienced the early 80s cinematic heyday that they so perfectly captured in Stranger Things but they had clearly done their homework and the series wore its influences proudly on its sleeve. There were large chunks of It and Poltergeist with a good sized helping of The Goonies, ET and Gremlins – to name just a few of the influences. With its Stephen King typeface, John Carpenter inspired synth score and Steven Spielberg visuals it was the best 1980s movie that you'd never seen.And despite all the evidence to the contrary it is a movie rather than a TV series. The show has a narrative structure that would have been unthinkable in the 1980s when TV series were predominantly episodic. In our modern world of streaming services and binge watching, the plot of Stranger Things was ideal, essentially playing out like a single eight hour movie or even a novel for television with chapter headings for each of the eight episodes. However the success of Stranger Things didn't just depend on nostalgia, the story of failed experiments and government conspiracies was good, the idea of the 'Upside Down' was intriguing and its young cast was uniformly excellent. As a result we could enjoy the slow build that the longer running time allowed and get to know our characters.
Stranger Things was a runaway success for Netflix last year, tapping into and influencing the pop culture consciousness that originally inspired it. So once Stranger Things 2 was announced the expectations were understandably high. Netflix needed to get this second season filmed quickly not only to capitalise on the success of the first season, and thus maintain interest in the series, but also to ensure that the kids themselves didn't grow up too fast. There was always a danger that such an accelerated production could diminish the quality of the final product, especially as Stranger Things 2 would be less of a surprise this time around. Thankfully The Duffer Brothers had a second season or rather sequel already planned out, which is why the title is Stranger Things 2 rather than just the second season of Stranger Things. As with the original season this is essentially a single long film and so the title seems entirely appropriate.
The new story picks up a year after the events in Stranger Things and all the familiar faces are back. Which means we get Winona Ryder's Joyce Byers – the actress herself is something of an 80s touchstone – still looking slightly unhinged and David Harbour's Sheriff Hopper still smoking an unhealthy number of cigarettes. Natalia Dyer is back as Nancy Wheeler, still looking like she could use a square meal, there's Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers with his intense looks and Joe Keery as Steve with his impossibly big hair. However it's the kids that are the real heart of the story and they remain as well-written and acted as before with each part perfectly cast.
There's Finn Wolfhard who is back as Mike Wheeler, still pining for the missing Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and since Wolfhard also played Richie Tozier in It, he must be wondering which decade he's in! There's a larger role this time for Noah Schnapp as Will Byers who is understandably suffering from post-traumatic stress after his experiences in Stranger Things. Whilst the comedy gold is delivered by Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson and Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair, with Matarazzo in particular stealing every scene he's in. The arrival of a new character called 'Mad Max' sends the boys' world into a spin before more serious events raise the stakes even higher. There are some other new faces too, including Sean Astin – who was actually in The Goonies – and Paul Reiser who is best know to genre fans as the slimy Burke in Aliens.
This is a worthy sequel that builds on the first season's charm whilst expanding the story
The Duffer Brothers have done an excellent job of expanding the story whilst simultaneously retaining the charm that made Stranger Things so good in the first place. We obviously don't want to spoil anything but it's safe to say that there plenty of government experiments, numerous conspiracies and various cover-ups, along with a heathy dose of 80s nostalgia and something very large and unpleasant lurking in the 'Upside Down'. The success of Stranger Things has clearly resulted in a larger budget for The Duffer Brothers but they wisely use that money to tell a better story and not just a bigger one – a trap into which so many sequels seem to fall. They cleverly deal with how the events at the end of the first film have affected the town of Hawkins, as well as how Barb's parents are dealing with her 'disappearance', which is sure to please fans of that much-maligned character.
The money is certainly up on the screen in terms of the production's visuals and just like the first season there's a very Spielberg-esque look to Stranger Things 2. The first season was available in 4K Ultra HD and so is the new season but it also adds High Dynamic Range (HDR10 or Dolby Vision depending on your display) which proves very effective in giving certain images greater impact. This is especially true in the 'Upside Down' where the highlights on the stuff floating in the air is really brought out and there's more detail in the shadows, as well as in the numerous multi-coloured storm clouds that herald the arrival of something very unpleasant. The soundtrack remains excellent although it's only Dolby Digital 5.1 which is a shame because Netflix has used Dolby Atmos on some of its other productions. However that minor complaint aside the synth score is still evocative, the effects are used extremely well and the bass is often incredibly deep, resulting in a sound design that compliments the fantastic visuals.
Ultimately Stranger Things 2 is a worthy successor to Stranger Things and, after nine chapters, it will simply leaving you wanting a third season. Although if The Duffer Brothers are planning a Stranger Things 3 they had better get a move on before their young stars do something awful like grow up!
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