The Duffer Brothers are back with ‘Stranger Things 4’ and how! Episode 1 begins with a grisly flashback to 1979, when protagonist Eleven was a little lab-rat for her scientist ‘papa’. She is at the center of a terrible bloodbath before her eventual escape. The mood completely shifts after the opening credit score, we are back to the present, the bright and colorful 1980s, with upbeat synth-pop music in the background and the gang dealing with high-school stuff.
Season three ended with the main friend group of breaking up (geographically) after saving the world. While most of the gang remains at Hawkins, the ‘cursed’ town where evil resides, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) moves out with her sons Will, Jonathan and Eleven. So it’s not just Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) who is in a long-distance relationship. All personal troubles however take a backseat, because there’s a new eerie demon in town, who is killing teens – the gang dubs him ‘Vecna’.
Episode one does a fantastic job of setting the pace for the rest of the season and is hands down the most entertaining and fun chapter in volume 1. Things continue to be interesting from there-on, but you can’t help be feel the new villain is just not big enough, and some of the stuff the kids do is silly (like looking for Vecna without the aid of any game-plan/superhero/or even weapons), but hey, this is fantasy horror, so viewers can keep logic on the backseat and just enjoy this ride.
There are 4 sub-plots simultaneously unfolding, without causing any sort of confusing or dampening of pace. Like the trailer suggests – Hopper (David Harbour) is still alive, but imprisoned in a Soviet prison, so Joyce and Murray (Brett Gelman is a hilarious cameo) head out to rescue him. Eleven is approached by scientists with a proposition to help get her lost powers back so she could fight the new monster, so she leave with them. The Byers brothers along with Will find themselves in danger and set out to find Eleven. Meanwhile, the kids in Hawkins work towards solving the Vecna mystery and how to stop him.
Unfortunately, despite a lot of blood and gore, the spook factor in ‘Stranger Things 4’ is quite low. ‘Vecna’ just doesn’t seem as gross or intimidating as the ‘Mind Flayer’ from Season 3, and killing a bunch of random vulnerable kids in devious ways only makes him seem eccentric and tame. It’s the familiar comfortable friendships and shenanigans of the popular cast that keeps things fun. Steve’s (Joe Keery) growing platonic friendship with Robin (Maya Hawke) is endearing, and the lgbt representation in a 80s series is refreshing.
Millie Bobby Brown continues to be the stand-out star of the series as Eleven. From being a formidable superhero, to becoming a vulnerable new girl without powers who is being bullied at school, Millie captures the myriad of emotions with ease. Some of the laboratory flashbacks to explain Eleven’s origin story however are too stretched out and could’ve been slightly shorter. A few of the nail-biting scenes are in David Harbour’s Soviet story-line, which is rife with human violence and feels like a completely different film altogether. Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp don’t get much screen-time, and are almost forgotten in the last two episodes. In fact, new cast member Eduardo Franco as Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) pothead friend Argyle leaves more of an impression than Will and Noah in this season. Eduardo and Charlie as incredibly believable and funny as two lost dudes on grass.
Filled with 80s pop-culture references, the most intriguing bit was how the Duffer Brothers cleverly weave in the ‘moral panic’ that swept through America over ‘Dungeons & Dragons’. People blamed the role-playing game over inexplicable events and branded its fans as satanists and murderers. Similarly, while Dustin and gang work to stop ‘Vecna’, a bunch of students believe it’s his D&D group that’s behind the brutal killings of teens. While some of the episodes in between feel like they meander too much, the last episode titled ‘Chapter 7: The Massacre At Hawkins Lab’ manages to tie up all the questions viewers may have about the new murders and Vecna.
Overall, fans should find this installment of Stranger Things engaging and largely satisfactory. It will be interesting to see if the Duffer Brothers will amp up the violence and horror in Volume 2!
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