Stranger Things 3 (2019)
Creators: The Duffer Brothers (Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer)
Cast: Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Winona Ryder
Synopsis: Summer brings new jobs and budding romance. But the mood shifts when Dustin's radio picks up a Russian broadcasts, and Will senses something is wrong.
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
TV Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 50 min
Release Date: July 4, 2019
When Netflix's Stranger Things premiered in 2016, it was an instant hit, revitalizing nostalgia for 1980s pop culture that included the beloved and iconic work of the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. But beyond paying homage to the artists of that decade, the series provided an original, suspenseful story populated with fleshed out characters, as well as remarkably strong direction, cinematography, editing, and sound design. All of these combined elements made for a supremely satisfying first season--one that would inevitably lead to a future for the series. The second season delivered, at least for the most part. The pacing was slower and the big surprises from the first season weren't topped, but the Duffer Brothers expanded the world and the development of the characters in every way a good sequel should, even homaging arguably the best sci-fi sequel of that decade, Aliens (James Cameron, 1986). So after a solid second season, the stakes were once again high for a strong third season, and this July 4th holiday revealed it all.
The theme of Stranger Things 3 is the inevitability of change and growing up. And the show exemplifies this idea from both thematic and technical standpoints. Mike's (Finn Wolfhard)'s hard truth to Will in episode 3 (Noah Schnapp) that "We aren't kids anymore" hits heavy not only on Will, but on audiences, as our beloved characters are growing up, renouncing the very things that once gave them (and us) such joy--like playing Dungeons and Dragons in the basement. There are bigger issues that take over as you grow up--like romantic relationships, jobs, your future career path, and yes, if you live in Hawkins, even supernatural threats. The Duffers know that as the characters and actors age, the show has to do the same. So this time around, the scale and horror is dramatically enlarged--no longer is there one nine foot demogorgon stalking Will in the upside down or a host of demodogs prowling around the lab and the town. This time the Mind Flayer has created a monster to put an end to everything, and the only thing standing in its way is Eleven.
Season 3 ratchets up the violence and terror in unison with the growing maturity of its central characters, and it works to great effect. Yes, there's also a lot more CGI work here, a startlingly high amount more than previous seasons. But the rare difference here is the CGI spectacle doesn't replace or hinder the rich characterization that we know and love from seasons one and two. Our characters still develop over the season and they still deal with real, challenging, relatable issues. And despite the season's darker tone, the show retains and even delivers more humor than previous seasons. This comes mostly from the larger role from Lucas's sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), who was given a small part in season 2 but gets much more screen time here, delivering sassy remarks to Steve and Dustin at every turn. The addition of Robin (Maya Hawke) also provides some lightheartedness to the season, as does the captive Russian Dr. Alexei (Alec Utgoff), who ends up serving as a supremely endearing character, from his difficult language barrier to his insistence on getting that cherry slushy.
The real heartbeat and driving force of the season, however, is Dacre Montgomery, who plays the flayed Billy. His entrance in season 2- --stepping out of his camero with an audible thud to the Scorpin's "Rock You Like A Hurricane" made an instantly memorable impression, and his charming swagger and unhinged personality make for a thoroughly entertaining human antagonist in season 3. The human part is important here, as we saw late in season 2 that his abrasive behavior stems from an abusive father (a character element and scene developed by the actor himself to humanize his character). Season 3 explores his humanity even further, and by the end we are empathizing and sympathizing with this character--someone most people hated throughout much of last season. His character is well-written, but Dacre takes it leaps and bounds further by delivering a masterful, Emmy-worthy performance as a tortured teen trying to fight off the actions he's being forced into doing. In what he stated as an inspired performance from James McAvoy's Kevin Wendell Crumb in Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2017), Dacre communicates Billy through his eyes throughout the whole season, and in several parts we can clearly see the emotional pain he's suffering at the hands of the Mind Flayer. It all functions extremely well on a character level on closer thinking--that someone who's had an abusive childhood is once again being mentally and physically abused by a supernatural entity. And it's this character work that makes the climactic final battle in episode 8 epic, beautiful, and heartbreaking.
The technical elements, especially the cinematography of season 3 deserves special attention here, because although the series has always possessed strong camera work, the lighting in this season is the best lighting in a season of a show I’ve ever seen. The strongest portions come from the interior of the Starcourt Mall, the new mall that opens up in Hawkins that serves as the primary setting for the events in the season. The mall is beautifully lit with neon lights all around, with the store signs showering the characters in rich hues that mirror the 4th of July holiday around which the events take place. Even scenes that take place at the carnival are beautifully lit, illuminating the characters and their environment in a vast array of colors. This cinematography work, coupled with strong production design, makes for a truly atmospheric and immersive experience that not only places you in the moment with the characters but gives you a truly transporting experience back to the heart of the 1980s like no other show (or hardly any movie) has done before.
The faults with Stranger Things 3 are few. It struggles to get moving initially, as the first few episodes don't have the brisk pacing that season 1 had. Instead, the third season falls more in line with season 2's slow pacing for its first three episodes. Events still happen that shape the overall narrative for the season, but they drag at certain points. Still, when it does pick up, (and believe me it does) it's once again hard to stop watching. The first few episodes also contained an out of character Hopper (David Harbour), who reverts back to his old drinking, lazy, depressed self after Mike and Eleven start dating. We can reason that his character would become irritated at a teenage boy taking time with his daughter away from him-- and the writers do motivate his obsession by season finale--but one still has a hard time believing he would act out in all the ways he does. At any rate, thankfully, once the strange events start creeping up, the Hopper we know and love returns and stays with us.
Stranger Things 3 is darker, grander, funnier, and more mature than the previous two seasons of the series. It dramatically escalates the action and horror and incorporates more grisly imagery than we're used to seeing. Yet despite the monstrous CGI action, the season never loses sight of its characters, devoting more time than ever to their relationships, trials, and the joys and pains that come with growing up. The season's tagline was "One summer can change everything." And things indeed changed in many ways, both for the characters and the show as a whole. And it'll be interesting to see what's in store for the fourth and potentially final season.
Written by Anthony Watkins, July 18, 2019