Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - JIMI FAMUREWA


CRE­ATED BY The Duf­fer Broth­ers

CAST Wi­nona Ry­der, David Har­bour, Finn Wolfhard, Mil­lie Bobby Brown, Noah Sch­napp, Sean Astin, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb Mclaugh­lin, Natalia Dyer

PLOT Late 1984. Will By­ers (Sch­napp) is haunted by his trans-di­men­sional ab­duc­tion. But are his vi­sions of the Up­side Down merely mem­o­ries?

With a shifty sci­en­tist lurk­ing (Reiser), po­lice chief Jim Hopper (Har­bour) and Will’s friends in­ves­ti­gate the new shad­owy pres­ence threat­en­ing Hawkins.

“I’VE AL­WAYS THOUGHT stuff like this only hap­pened in movies and comic books, not here,” says Bob Newby, Sean Astin’s aptly named new Stranger Things char­ac­ter, as the small town of Hawkins once again finds it­self the fo­cus of an inter-di­men­sional war. It’s a ques­tion that gets to the cen­tral prob­lem fac­ing the show’s cre­ators, the Duf­fer broth­ers, as they aim to fol­low-up the smash-hit first sea­son of their ir­re­sistible ’80s nos­tal­gia stew. How do you re­peat the trick of every­day char­ac­ters liv­ing through ex­traor­di­nary cir­cum­stances with­out stretch­ing plau­si­bil­ity to break­ing point?

It’s a co­nun­drum the Duf­fers mostly solve with wit, au­da­cious plot­ting and verve across this nine-episode re­turn. Stranger Things 2 — but for some oc­ca­sional mis­steps and an ill-judged di­ver­sion­ary episode — makes good on its aim to em­u­late the fleet-footed bold­ness of a clas­sic movie se­quel from the VHS era.

Af­ter a daz­zling, seem­ingly un­con­nected open­ing in Pitts­burgh, we shift to the fa­mil­iar sights of Hawkins. As ham­mered home by the mul­ti­ple Rea­gan/bush lawn signs, it’s late Oc­to­ber 1984. Will By­ers (an in­creas­ingly im­pres­sive Sch­napp) has been back from his trip to the nether­world that is the Up­side Down for nearly a year but — as hinted at by the crawl­ing crea­ture he splut­tered into a sink dur­ing last year’s fi­nale — he’s not re­ally the same in­no­cent, D&d-ob­sessed boy. For one thing, he keeps hav­ing “episodes” that see him glimpse a red-skied apoc­a­lypse and a many-ten­ta­cled mon­ster loom­ing over Hawkins.

Paul Reiser’s Dr Owens (the new, dis­con­cert­ingly cheer­ful head of the Depart­ment For En­ergy) in­sists that these vi­sions are lit­tle more than PTSD but, af­ter a piv­otal dis­cov­ery on the night of Hallowe’en, the core, bike-rid­ing quar­tet of friends (plus Max, Sadie Sink’s tomboy­ish new char­ac­ter) and, ul­ti­mately, Joyce By­ers (Ry­der) find them­selves once again try­ing to get to the bot­tom of a po­ten­tially cat­a­clysmic, gov­ern­ment-en­abled threat. Else­where Eleven (Brown) has, of course, re­turned to have more tele­ki­netic nose­bleeds, and po­lice chief

Jim Hopper (Har­bour) is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mys­te­ri­ous blight wip­ing out lo­cal pump­kin patches, while also spit­ting out pe­ri­o­dap­pro­pri­ate one-lin­ers (“I only want five min­utes,” blurts a lo­cal con­spir­acy the­o­rist. “Yeah, and I want a date with Bo Derek.

We all want things,” replies Hopper).

What’s per­haps most im­pres­sive is how the Duf­fers have been able to have their Eggo waf­fles and eat them, deep­en­ing the mys­tery of Will’s dis­ap­pear­ance (and, as #jus­tice­for­barb fans will be pleased to note, Barb’s death) while also tick­ling our col­lec­tive retro pop-cul­ture synapses. Of course, the pleas­ing hits of ’80s nos­tal­gia

come thick and fast, in­clud­ing a nod to leg­en­dar­ily ex­tor­tion­ate ar­cade game Dragon’s Lair and those Ghost­busters cos­tumes, served with a funny riff on how no-one wants to be Win­ston.

It’s not an en­tirely flaw­less re­turn. One episode four scene — fea­tur­ing Hopper and Joyce mak­ing sus­pi­ciously light work of turn­ing Will’s A4 scrib­blings into a Neil Buchanan­wor­thy floor col­lage — feels like too bla­tant an at­tempt to recre­ate the vis­ual ge­nius of

Sea­son 1’s fairy-light ouija board. And episode seven — which plays out away from the main Hawkins-set ac­tion — is a ris­i­ble, ob­vi­ous piece of story-pad­ding that’s drip­ping cliché and all the worst bits of He­roes.

But mostly Stranger Things 2 man­ages to be as in­spired, deliri­ously en­joy­able and briskly plot­ted as the orig­i­nal. And with hints that the next two sea­sons will see the gang face an­other threat while also con­tend­ing with pu­berty (that other loom­ing, un­stop­pable beast), there’s cause for fans to be very ex­cited in­deed.

VER­DICT Darker and more am­bi­tious but shot through with warmth and won­der, this re­turn trip to Hawkins still has the power to make ex­citable 13-year-olds of us all.

Even stranger things, it would seem.

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