‘Stranger Things 2’ Series Review: Upside Down & Right Side Up

When “Stranger Things” hit the scene in summer of 2016, it was an immediate success, catching a lot of people off-guard with its mix of 80’s nostalgia, endearing characters- many of which were played by unknown young actors- and spin-the-wheel-on-the-reference approach to storytelling. So enmeshed in the 80’s was the first season that one who didn’t know better would be forgiven for thinking it actually was a “lost” mini-series from the decade, if not for the presence of two older 80’s icons, cult star Winona Ryder (“Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands”) and Matthew Modine (“Full Metal Jacket,” “Married to the Mob”).

Playing like a Stephen King adaptation directed by John Carpenter but executive produced by Steven Spielberg so as to not be too scary for the kiddies, “Stranger Things” combined elements of such classic films and books as King’s “IT,” “Firestarter,” “The Talisman,” and “Stand by Me” (aka “The Body,” which served as an episode title); Carpenter’s version of “The Thing” (which even had a cameo in the series) and “Prince of Darkness”; Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Poltergeist,” and “E.T.”; and countless other genre flicks like “Scanners,” “Strange Behavior,” “Frequency,” “Alien,” “Altered States,” and plenty more where that came from.

Factor in a healthy dose of the board game “Dungeons & Dragons” and you had a near-perfect mix of homage and entertainment akin to J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: A New Hope” redux “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”- which was basically a reimagining of the original “Star Wars” when you get down to it- or his creature features “Super 8” or “Cloverfield.” Yes, it was basically repackaged nostalgia when you broke it all down, but it was entertaining nostalgia nonetheless.

From the minute that John Carpenter-esque synth-driven score came on, along with that fleck-ridden title sequence and bright red font, this felt completely of its time, and I don’t mean 2016. “Stranger Things” was truly 80’s era fan worship done right, courtesy of relative newcomers, the Duffer Brothers, previously best-known for the clever horror flick “Hidden” and not much else, save writing a few episodes of M. Night Shyamalan’s moderately successful “Wayward Pines.” Amusingly enough, the two identical brothers were both born in 1984, meaning that the series actually took place before they were even around, despite the dead-on feel of things.

Beginning in November of 1983, and set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the original series followed the exploits of a group of middle-school age kids and their slightly older siblings, who found themselves caught up in mysterious circumstances when one of the younger kids, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing one day after a close encounter of the monster kind. The series then follows the efforts of the kids, Will’s mother, Joyce (Ryder), and local Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour)- who himself lost a child to cancer and has since descended into alcoholism- to find Will by any means necessary.

All of it seems to be somehow connected to the shady local scientific research lab, which is heavily guarded by military types and is known for dubious scientific experiments, a la the ones performed on people in the 50’s and 60’s with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs by the CIA- which, yes, really happened. To the best of my knowledge, it didn’t bestow anyone with “new abilities,” but that’s what happened in “Stranger Things,” where Eleven, aka “El” (the magnetic Millie Bobby Brown), was born to one of said test subjects and taken away from her mother and raised in captivity by said mad scientists. Needless to say, complications arose.

One of said complications was the opening of a “gate,” which also seems to have unleashed a creature into Hawkins, where it is starting to wreak havoc, including abducting Will and later on, other locals, including Barb (Shannon Purser), the best friend of Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who is the older sister of Mike (the excellently-named Finn Wolfhard), one of Will’s best friends. Around the same time, Eleven escapes the lab and befriends and hides out with Mike at his house, unbeknownst to his parents and sister.

Along with Mike’s other friends and fellow outcasts, the lisping Dustin (an endearing Gaten Matarazzaro) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who is wary and jealous of Mike’s instant bond with Eleven, the four seek to get to the bottom of Will’s disappearance themselves, which eventually dovetails with Joyce and Hopper’s own searches and discoveries, which include a fake dead body meant to dissuade locals for looking for Will and Will’s own attempts to reach out to his mother from wherever he’s being held via electrical signals in the form of phone calls and lights.

This turns out to be what is dubbed “The Upside Down,” an alternate dimension that is much like our own, but darker and gloomier, not unlike “The Territories” in Stephen King and Peter Straub’s epic fantasy novels “The Talisman” and “Black House.” Only this version of Hawkins is inhabited by odd creatures that seem to feed on humans- or are they using them for some other nefarious purpose?

The original series ends with Will being rescued, thanks to the efforts of Hopper and his friends and family, but also the disappearance of key player Eleven in the final battle against the main creature, which is ultimately defeated by her. In addition, Will coughs up a slug-like creature at the end, leading one to wonder if there will be some repercussions from his time spent in the Upside Down.

“Stranger Things 2” follows in the footsteps of Randy’s layout for the rules of a sequel in “Scream 2.” It’s bigger-budgeted, much more elaborate, with a storyline that shows that viewers of the original series didn’t know the half of what was really going on, and with several more seasons planned for the future, chances are, we still don’t. It’s also more action-packed, gorier and just plain scarier. If the original series was “Alien” by way of Stephen King, this one is basically James Cameron’s “Aliens”- down to the casting of that film’s co-star Paul Reiser- by way of “Gremlins.”

It all begins about a year after the events of the first series, around Halloween time. As the kids prepare their costumes- they’re going as “Ghostbusters,” but of course- Will continues to struggle to readjust to life outside the Upside Down. He’s regularly experiencing nightmares about it and a giant creature that lurks there, which he fears may be coming to Hawkins, following in the footsteps of the much-smaller creature that terrorized everyone in the first series.

To that end, Joyce is taking Will to be seen and examined by Dr. Owens (Reiser), who may or may not be akin to the decidedly evil Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who is presumed dead after the creature attack in the first series. Hopper seems to have cut some kind of deal with the government types from the first series to allow Will to continue to live at home and live a relatively normal life, in exchange for these regular visits to keep an eye on him and anything that may arise from his past experiences in the Upside Down.

In the meantime, Dr. Owens and his cadre of scientists continue to explore the Upside Down, presuming that, with the creature dead, all is safe- or so it would seem. To be fair, there have been no deaths since, and their research has been unimpeded by anything to date, but with Will getting worse as the anniversary of his abduction looms, all eyes are on him and the possibility of that changing real soon.

We also meet a new group of characters, spear-headed by Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), a young girl who also has abilities that allow her to make people hallucinate whatever she wants them to. It is revealed that she has a number eight tattooed on her forearm, thus implying that she, like Eleven, was among those held captive at the Hawkins lab, and has also escaped their clutches. She seems to have entered a life of crime, using her abilities to help dodge authorities.

There’s also Max, short for Maxine (Sadie Sink, looking all the world like a young Lindsay Lohan- let’s hope she has a better career trajectory), a young video game whiz that Dustin and Lucas immediately become enamored with, and her older stepbrother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a metalhead bully that clearly hates her. Max basically serves as a placeholder for Eleven in the guy-heavy group, and not without some resentment from Mike, who still carries a torch for his beloved El, who we discover is being hidden away in a cabin in the woods by Sheriff Hopper for her own well-being, given that the scientists and government agents are still out to get her.

Hopper is also investigating a rash of odd pumpkin patch infestations, which are initially blamed on competing farmers trying to run each other out of business during the Halloween season, their busiest time of year, but which Hopper suspects may be related somehow to the whole Upside Down thing, which naturally turns out to be the case. Finally, Dustin discovers a tiny amphibious creature in his trash, which he takes in as a pet, later showing it off to his friends.

Things go from there, and I won’t spoil what comes next, except to say that this season, in addition to expanding on the alternate dimension established in the first series, takes its cues from the likes of “Gremlins” (tiny creature of dubious origin that’s cute at first, but may prove dangerous; three rules to be followed or there will be hell to pay), “Evil Dead” (evil spirits plague a group of people in a cabin in the woods), “The Gate” (a gate to hell is opened, releasing demonic creatures into the world- also one of the episode titles), “Tremors” (local townspeople battle underground-dwelling creatures) and “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors” and/or “X-Men” (a group of outcasts band together to fight evil, some with special powers).

All in all, it’s a much more ambitious undertaking, for better or for worse, and for the most part, it succeeds. With one more episode than last season, “Stranger Things 2” has a little more wiggle room to expand its wide array of characters, allowing us to get to know them better, which is good. On the other hand, some may not like the host of new characters, and may not want to spend time with them, preferring to stick with the core group established in the first series.

In addition, there are a fair amount of flashbacks involved, as well as lengthy sections of the new series that take place outside of Hawkins, taking away from the main action at hand. A lot of whether you care about this or not will depend on your affection for Eleven as a character and whether or not you care about her back-story and her experiences outside of Hawkins.

Some people have expressed not caring for this aspect of the story, but I didn’t mind it, as it both filled in details about Eleven’s past, as well as established that, once again for better or for worse, she’s not alone out there. I expect that, on down the line, we will likely meet others who share specific abilities like Eleven and Eight, and that they will possibly band together, perhaps to fight the evils of the Upside Down.

For the most part, though, the main focus in this series is on the denizens of Hawkins and their adventures, and how they combat the new obstacles in their path, with a key assist from Eleven in the clutch, but of course. I would have to say I enjoyed it almost as much as the first series, with my only real complaint being that it takes its time getting going, so that extra episode, as often tends to be the case with series being expanded, may not have done it any favors.

Still, if you love these characters- and I do, personally- then you won’t mind spending more time with them. You just might be frustrated by the influx of new characters, some of which are admittedly unlikable and often annoying. But Max in particular grew on me, and I liked that, as with Steve Harrington (Joe Kerry) in the first series, her stepbrother Billy proves to have reasons to be the way he is, and isn’t just a one-dimensional bully.

Given that Steve not only becomes more sympathetic towards the end of the first series and even more so in Part 2, becoming downright heroic in his actions, I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy comes around to being more involved in the action in Part 3 and perhaps starts behaving like something other than a massive douchebag. He certainly gets schooled by the end of this series, though we only get a small hint as to how much the experience affects him, so the jury’s still out on how much it changes him on the whole. But the character shows promise, as does the actor playing him, so we’ll see. (The scene with him and Mike’s mom is well-worth all the scenes of him being an a-hole combined alone.)

As for the core cast, Ryder has much more to do here than be hysterical almost the entire time, as she was in the first series, which is good. Not that she wasn’t riveting there, just that she’s much more level-headed and gets to be more take charge and directly involved in Part 2 than she was in the original series. We also get a sweet romance between her and fellow 80’s survivor Sean Astin, of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Goonies” fame, which gets a cute nod here. Ryder and Astin have undeniable chemistry and the “Islands in the Stream” bit was very endearing, as is Astin in general.

Speaking of which, the bigger budget allows for a far healthier dose of 80’s music, much more so than the first series. While I appreciated the lesser-known tracks from the original a bit more, which, in addition to its more familiar 80’s hits, also included the likes of 60’s garage band The Seeds, psychedelic rockers Jefferson Airplane, punk rock from Reagan Youth, art-rock from Joy Division, New Order, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, and a host of other obscurities; I will allow that there’s a lot more familiarity this time around, what with more readily identifiable tunes from Devo, Scorpions, Ratt, Motley Crue, Duran Duran, and so on.

Bonus points for the use of “Scarface (Push it to the Limit),” though, and to be fair, the second series isn’t without its fair share of obscure deep cuts and lesser-known tracks from bands like Queen and Metallica, so it’s not all obvious choices. Besides, it’s hard to do an 80’s-era endeavor without tossing in at least a few ringers just because it immediately takes one back to that time almost instantaneously- even if you weren’t around back then, like the Duffers themselves, so I won’t begrudge the boys too much for it. (I, too, was a child of the 80’s, so I can’t really talk.)

But regardless, the prominent score, from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, is worth its weight in gold, almost perfectly replicating an 80’s era synth-driven score, in the tradition of John Carpenter, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream- all of whom actually have songs seamlessly embedded in the show as well, I might add. To date, there are no less than three soundtrack collections of said score, all of which are well-worth having if you like that sort of thing.

Overall, I have to applaud the Duffer Brothers for maintaining the essential feel of the original series, while elaborating on the story and upping their special effects game considerably. I can see where some might quibble about certain subplots being inconsequential or a waste of time, but I drilled through all nine episodes of this almost as fast as I did the original, so I can’t say I was complaining that much. Besides, if it were just a rehash of what came before, it would be akin to a subpar sequel and nobody likes those. To that end, this was near-everything a solid sequel should be, IMHO.

I certainly look forward to the next installment, which can’t get here fast enough, and I think it will be interesting to see the younger cast grow up and tackle more adult concerns, which we get glimpses of here, such as when two of the boys fall for the same girl, and there are some hints of racial undertones as well, given that one of the boys is African-American. For instance, in one scene, the boys fight over who gets to be Bill Murray’s character in “Ghostbusters” for Halloween, with one of them just assuming that Lucas would be Ernie Hudson’s but realizing it was simply because he was black all too late to escape Lucas’s notice.

It’s a clever way of exploring latent, even unintended racism without being too on the nose about it, and the series could use more of that type of subtle exploration of social mores. I also suspect that Billy, Max’s stepbrother, may also have some much more overt racist tendencies, given his total overreaction to Max’s involvement with Lucas, which I hope they also explore in the next installment, but without getting too preachy.

Despite the added episode, the series does sort of skirt over certain character moments and traits that could have been interesting to explore more, if there were more time. But on the whole, we really do get a much closer look at most of the characters than we did in the first season, so I can’t complain too much about it. Where the actors had to fill in the blanks for the writers’ shortcomings in the first season, here, the writers step up their game considerably. In terms of characterization, it’s a vast improvement.

That said, there’s still plenty of unanswered questions to get into in future installments, particularly in regard to the show’s underlying mythos, and the whole lab experimenting thing with Eight and Eleven. There’s any number of ways they could go with this, and there’s even a golden opportunity to be more original on down the line than the show has been to date. For instance, there were subtle hints of a sort of Lovecraftian menace that brings to mind Stephen King’s short story “The Mist” but could be its own thing, sort of how John Carpenter made it his own in the underrated “In the Mouth of Madness.”

Likewise, though “Firestarter” and “Scanners” were obvious jumping off points for the Eight and Eleven storylines, the fact that each of the girls possess different abilities could open the story up to a wide variety of such talents in different test subjects, of which there are obviously at least eleven, allowing the show to formulate its own take on the “X-Men” in the process, which could be cool, though “The Gifted” is doing something of that nature at the moment, as well- but then, it is an “X-Men” spin-off, so…

But I like the idea of “Stranger Things” doing its own version of that sort of thing, so we’ll see what they do with it. At this point, I don’t mind that the show continues to wear its influences on its sleeve- if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, as they say. The sheer variety of said influences, combined with the mini-series format- which allows for a much more sprawling storyline than one would get in a mere movie- helps the show forge its own identity by allowing for more of everything, ensuring that it’s not simply a rip-off of one obvious piece of source material, but many, combining to make something that’s its own thing, as it were.

In other words, the show is more than the sum of its parts, which is good. If it were just a mere rip-off, that wouldn’t be much more than an extended exercise in 80’s nostalgia. By taking said influences and making something unique and original with it, “Stranger Things” could well become a modern-day classic, especially if it sticks the landing. So far, so good.

The seams haven’t yet begun to show, and these are still characters I like spending time with, warts and all. That bodes well for its immediate future- let’s just hope the show continues to grow and improve, just like their younger protagonists. Otherwise, the show might find itself falling into the pitfall that befalls many successful shows, where they try to prolong the inevitable by extending things past the breaking point.

If the Duffer Brothers can manage to come up with a set endgame that finishes the show before it grows stale, we might just have something here that’s one for the ages, and by all indications, they seem to want to do that at a specific, fixed point in time. (They’ve stated that they want to end it by the fourth or fifth season.) I don’t mind the idea of spending a few more years with the established characters at all, I just don’t want to see them overstay their welcome, you know?

That said, the good definitely outweighs the bad here, and there are enough improvements on the first series to bode well for the third. If the Duffer brothers can maintain their consistency of vision, along with continuing to tell a compelling story, then they should be just fine. Stranger things have happened, after all.

What did you think of Series 2 of “Stranger Things”? Did you like it as much as the first one? Or even more? Are you looking forward to spending more time with these characters? What did you think of the new additions? Do you hope the show continues to expand its scope to a bigger vision and more widespread canvas moving forward, or would you prefer it stuck to the small-town venue and kept things more centralized? What would you like to see in the series in the future? Sound off on this and more down below in the comments section, and thanks for reading!