Whether you love it, like it or just have a feigning interest, Stranger Things has become must-watch television. Now back with its biggest, boldest – and by far most expensive season to date – Stranger Things 4 looks to deliver on that promise yet again with an ambitious story in and out of Hawkins that dials the fear factor up to eleven.
Note: The following is a spoiler-free opinion/review of the first four episodes of Stranger Things 4
Six months since the Battle of Starcourt, we pick up with the cast of characters all separated for the first time. El, having moved to California with Will, Joyce and Jonathan, is struggling to adjust to high school while the likes of Mike, Dustin and Lucas have found their own social circles back in Hawkins. Max, meanwhile, still traumatised by the death of her brother Billy, has cut herself off from her friends altogether.
More than anyone else, Stranger Things 4 is Max's story. Now with extended runtimes averaging 75-minutes apiece (the finale is slated confirmed to be a whopping two and a half hours), the Duffer Brothers have done a miraculous job of making sure each group of characters gets a fair amount of time allotted. It's on the level of Avengers: Infinity War or the highs of Game of Thrones. Don't worry, Millie Bobby Brown fans! Eleven has plenty to do, contemplating her place in the world without superpowers. This mysterious plot is just getting started, so very little to say here for a moment.
In this expanded role, Sink grabs it with two hands as Max deals first-hand with some of the horrors of the Upside Down, giving a fine performance that will likely tear the fanbase apart over who is the new favourite female of the ensemble. One sequence, that I won't spoil, during the climax of episode four, had my heart in my mouth the whole time. Eleven is still the catalyst to all of this, however, the heart of Stranger Things 4 certainly belongs to Sadie Sink's Max.
Speaking of the Upside Down, it's got a new ghoulish, undead face in the form of Vecna. This slithering lich is the new big, bad villain, lurking in the background and tormenting the citizens of Hawkins. It's a smart inclusion after the CGI-heavy Mind Flayer of season three. Not to say there isn't a ton of VFX but something that resembles human form is much easier to root for, or against in this case. Reminding me heavily of Nemesis from Resident Evil, Vecna is without a doubt the best 'monster' in Stranger Things, helping to create nightmarish encounters in every scene utilised.
Even with some "VFX still in progress" according to Netflix, the body horror is grimmer than ever. Considering Stranger Things is predominantly aimed at Millennials and more so, Gen Z these days, some of the younger viewers might be a bit taken aback. Best of all is the show's overarching sense of dread. This is only exacerbated by the wonderful score that mixes in the nostalgic 80s themes we've all come to love since the show debuted in 2016 – only this time, it's greatly twisted to give an off variation that propels a constant feeling of foreboding.
I wouldn't go as far as to say the reported $30 million dollars per episode budget is well spent but the show's production values are sky-high – more cinematic, more set pieces and more locations. If you've seen the trailer, you'll be well aware that Hopper returns. Now captured in a Russian prison, it's up to Joyce and Murray to free the former Hawkins chief of police, taking Stranger Things to the international stage. It's early days for this part of the story and feels as if the best is still to come for the trio.
A quick word on the newcomers: Joseph Quinn and Eduardo Franco who plays Eddie Munson and Argyle, respectively. With such a stacked cast, it's hard for these two to not get lost among the already established crowd. Instead, we get two very immediate likeable additions. As Jonathan's new friend in California, Argyle and him produce some of the biggest laughs settling into the stoner personas that fit with the era and setting very well.
The same can't be said for one-note Peter Ballard (Jamie Campbell Bower), however, who comes across as the stereotypical jock and nothing more. It also sees Lucas get caught up in what feels like an unnecessary storyline to add some tension. Hopefully, my mind will change come the final credits.
Oh, and of course, Steve "best hair in the biz" Harrington and Dustin's relationship continues to get the time it deserves. Boasting some of the strongest chemistry over the last two seasons, Nancy and Robin now look to replicate that same winning formula as another unexpected team-up. In fact, it's when the foursome briefly bounces off one another that makes Stranger Things as good as it ever has been.
That's why I can't wait for the inevitable coming together of the narrative, as opposed to the many, many different dynamics working in the early episodes. If pulled off well, this could easily be Stranger Thing's best series to date.
Stranger Things 4 stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, Brett Gelman, Cara Buono and Matthew Modine.
The first seven episodes will drop on Netflix on May 27th, 2022 with the remaining two episodes set to premiere on July 1st, 2022.