Stranger Things 3 Review: Mall Madness in Hawkins

Stranger Things 3 The third season of Stranger Things cranks things up to Eleven. (Netflix)

Netflix’s acclaimed horror-nostalgia series returns for a third season of high-stakes blockbuster television.

Stranger Things is a fascinating pop culture phenomenon, a big-budget mishmash of ’80s pop culture and horror staples from Stephen King to The Thing that somehow also manages to function as more than the sum of its parts. There are those who argue it’s just a collection of references that tickle the nostalgia centers in our brains, and those blatant millennial dopamine-grabs are certainly in no short supply in the third season. But there’s something magical about the way producer Shawn Levy and writer/director/creators The Duffer Brothers manage to weave those pop culture signposts into an uproarious, endlessly enjoyable story with beautiful characters you root for all on their own.

It’s 1985 in Hawkins, and the pre-teen tots we met in the beginning of the show are finally starting to grow up. They’re taller, their voices are deeper, and they’re starting to pair off; Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) have fallen hard for each other, which chafes El’s overprotective dad (and Hawkins police chief) Jim Hopper (David Harbour, Hellboy). Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are an item now too, and even Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) comes back from science camp with a “genius” girlfriend named Suzie, who’s “even hotter than Phoebe Cates.” Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), however, worries that this means their tight-knit friend group is finally falling apart.

Those aren’t the only changes felt in Hawkins, however — the town square is dying thanks to the glitzy new Starcourt Mall that was just built outside of town, thanks to scuzzy Mayor Klein (Cary Elwes, all smarm and veneers). Sure, it’s a fun place to hang out and get a summer job (Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) slums it in a maritime-themed ice cream shop), but it’s killing the general store Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) works at. But of course, all these domestic matters pale in comparison to grander threats, as the Mind Flayer begins to dig its way back to Hawkins, planning to exact revenge on El for defeating it at the end of last season.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of story to get through in the eight hour-long episodes of Stranger Things 3, and at times the show threatens to collapse under the weight of all its subplots and numerous characters. That synopsis didn’t even touch on Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers’ (Charlie Heaton) contributions to the story, for instance. That said, the Duffer Brothers somehow find plenty of room to give every character its time in the sun, and even make room for wonderful additions like Maya Hawke as Steve’s Scoops Ahoy coworker, who finds herself embroiled in the supernatural goings-on. This is helped mostly by keeping the main cast split up for much of the story, various groups of protagonists embarking on their own respective journeys before reuniting at Starcourt Mall for a balls-out finale.

At the end of the day, Stranger Things 3 is effectively-told populist entertainment, the kind of breezy, exciting, emotionally accessible spectacle Steven Spielberg would be proud of.

Other critics have described Stranger Things 3 as an eight-hour long movie, and they’re not wrong: like many Netflix original series, this is intended to be binged with your family over Fourth of July weekend in a single shot. As such, the episodes don’t work quite as well in microcosm, and a lot of the story’s events serve mainly to amp up to the aforementioned climax, a multi-tiered battle at Starcourt for the fate of Hawkins, El and the world. There are exciting, horrifying, funny moments along the way, to be sure, but a few tweaks could have made the whole affair as exciting as its climax.

As can be expected, the ’80s nostalgia references are fast and furious — Hopper’s new mustache-and-Hawaiian shirt combo deliberately evokes Magnum P.I. (he’s even introduced watching the show), and the show’s unstoppable Russian heavy bears more than a tiny resemblance to The Terminator, and the new Big Bad of this season is heavily influenced by The Thing. New Coke cans are flashed at the screen and their merits are discussed ad nauseam, the show occasionally stopping cold to shout “remember this?!” at its audience.

Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) team up to investigate. Photo: Netflix

But the magic of Stranger Things is that it allows these references to inform our characters’ journeys, and the cast is as winsome as ever. Harbour and Ryder, in particular, have electric Tracy-and-Hepburn chemistry this season, sniping and bugging their eyes at each other to glorious effect. Smaller supporting characters like Max and Lucas’ younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) get their own moments to shine, the latter easily stealing every scene she’s in. Even unpopular characters like Billy (Dacre Montgomery) are given moments of unexpected pathos.

For all its Sturm und Drang about monster-hunting, Stranger Things‘ best moments are when it lets down its guard and lets two or more people just hash out their issues in a room together. That’s a credit to the cast, especially its younger players: we’ve been watching these kids grow up for three seasons now, and it’s great to see the writers allow them to change and grow as the years go on.

At the end of the day, Stranger Things 3 is effectively-told populist entertainment, the kind of breezy, exciting, emotionally accessible spectacle Steven Spielberg would be proud of. It’s a story about ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things, all the while recognizing the bittersweet realities of growing up. Also, there’s monsters and synthesizer hits and Jake Busey as a chauvinist news editor. What more do you want, really?

Stranger Things 3 shows off things only ’80s kids will remember on Netflix July 4.

Stranger Things 3 Trailer:

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