Stranger Things 3 spoiler-free review: 'Pacier, more tightly-plotted, funnier, but also scarier and more violent'
Three is rarely the magic number when it comes to franchises. The odd exception such as Toy Story 3 aside, the general trend is for the third instalment of something to be the weakest.
Return of the Jedi paled alongside its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back, while Superman III, Spider-Man 3, Alien III, The Matrix Revolutions and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines all stank.
The Duffer Brothers, twins Matt and Ross, faced a different problem with the third outing for their sci-fi/horror nostalgia fest Stranger Things: to recapture the things that made us fall in love with the series in season one – things noticeably absent from the second run, which was too dark, dour and meandering.
There was a sense that the Duffers were covering the same ground as before, going through the same familiar motions. The charm had drained away. It all felt a little joyless.
The good news is that Stranger Things 3 has charm by the truckload – and a lot more besides.
In every way, it’s a huge improvement: pacier, more tightly-plotted, funnier, but also scarier and more violent. The special effects budget and – be warned – the gore have been upped considerably.
It’s bigger and more expansive too. The Duffers, marinated in a love for the movies and TV shows of the 80s, have gone to town on the nostalgia-plundering.
Steven Spielberg and Stephen King are still the major influences underpinning everything, but this time you can also detect elements of The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dawn of the Dead, The Terminator, Fast Times at Ridge-mont High and a smattering of John Hughes.
Mercifully, it escapes from the Stygian gloom of the Upside Down, which barely features at all during the eight episodes, and into the bright sunlight of the summer of 1985 in Hawkins, Indiana.
Things are changing for the young characters, who have started to put away childish things and nudge into the pleasure and pain of adolescence.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), now calling herself El, are a couple and spend an inordinate amount of time kissing – much to the irritation of El’s adoptive father, Hopper (David Harbour), who insists on a “door open three inches” rule.
Hopper himself is tentatively trying to get something going with Joyce (Winona Ryder), who’s still grieving for poor old Bob (Sean Astin), who was killed by the Mind Flayer.
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are still together, and even Dustin (Gaten Mazzerato), just returned from science summer camp, has a long-distance girlfriend called Suzie (“Think Phoebe Cates, only hotter”), who may or may not be real.
None of this is any fun for poor Will (Noah Schnapp), who just wants things to remain the same, to keep hanging out with his buddies playing Dungeons and Dragons, but feels them drifting away.
There’s real poignancy here, a sense of fragile childhood friendships quietly breaking apart, and the scene where an angry Will smashes up the group’s den is genuinely affecting.
They don’t remain splintered for long, though, because a malign force is carrying out a dangerous experiment in secret chambers underneath the town’s gaudy, gleaming new shopping mall, which becomes the centre of attraction for the townspeople and also the re-entry portal for the evil the gang thought they had vanquished.
Stranger Things 3 brings back all the familiar faces – including Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and the hilarious Joe Keery as Steve, who’s reduced to a summer job slinging ice-cream while dressed in a humiliating sailor suit – and adds a couple of vibrant new ones.
The Duffers have built themselves a big, beautifully detailed playset and are having a lot of nostalgic fun playing with it. You will too.
Stranger Things 3 is now streaming on Netflix.