Stranger Things 4, first look review: At first I was bored, then I was bingeing

Show’s final season feels like a huge leap forward as Netflix supersizes streaming hit

Stranger Things has redefined the idea of comfort viewing, with its 1980s-specific mash-up of Dungeons and Dragons, Stephen King, The Goonies and ET.

There is something so deliciously familiar about the vintage universe it conjures, regardless of whether you experienced that world first hand as a child or retroactively through classic Spielberg movies, via a tatty paperbacks of IT and the Tommyknockers etc.

And so it’s hard not feel a familiar warmth when that chilly John Carpenter-esque theme strikes up. From there, all of Stranger Things’ most beloved references are quickly ticked off as the Netflix smash to rule them all returns for its farewell season (debuting Friday).

It's a heady retro cocktail – lacking in originality yet wonderfully assembled

Dungeons & Dragons features prominently. An early sequence involving Millie Bobby Brown’s psychic (technically ex-psychic) Eleven winks simultaneously towards Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance and Brian De Palma’s adaptation of King’s Carrie. The music of Kate Bush serves as a major plot trigger.

And yet in some ways the final Stranger Things – as is the fashion nowadays, it has been split in half, with the two-part finale arriving July 1st – feels like a huge leap forward. With Eleven and the Byers family (Winona Ryder, Charlie Heaton and Noah Schnapp) relocated to California, series creators the Duffer brothers have for the first time moved beyond their sandbox of Hawkins, Indiana.

We visit Siberia, where David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper is alive and in captivity in a Soviet Gulag after vanishing through that portal at the end Stranger Things 3 (a spoiler confirmed in advance by Netflix). Back in Hawkins, meanwhile, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) discover the Upside Down has unleashed a new villain – a undead sorcerer, whom our heroes name “Vecna” after a Dungeons and Dragons baddie.

Brown and the rest of the young cast were children when Stranger Things debuted in 2016. They’re all in their late teens now, their characters wrestling with grown-up relationship problems (there are hints of a surprise love triangle between Eleven, Mike and Will Byers).

Strangely, though, time seems to have stood still for some of the older actors. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) are, for instance, still hanging around Hawkins along with Maya Hawk’s Robin, introduced serving ice-cream at the Hawkins Mall in 2019.

This is, above all, a Bigger, Bolder Stranger Things. Eager to get the most from its most popular franchise, Netflix has super-sized the show. There is a whiff of late-period Game of Thrones in the bumped-up running time, with each episode clocking in at around 70 minutes and feeling like its own mini movie.

It isn’t always to the story’s benefit. The Duffers know their audience has come to care deeply for Eleven, Mike and the gang. But an initial focus on their growing pains feels baggy and over-extended, and the decision to keep the supernatural in the background early on threatens to sap this new Stranger Things of much of its momentum.

That all changes when the dark forces that have previously waylaid Hawkins – accidentally invited in by Dr Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his research station above Hawkins in series one – come roaring back.

Likewise beefed up are the Duffers’ period references, which now include post-Friday the 13th slasher films, the D&D “Satanic panic” of the mid-1980s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush and, unless I’m mistaken, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves.

It’s a heady retro cocktail – lacking in originality yet wonderfully assembled. The year’s first must-binge blockbuster has arrived.

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