Stranger Things 4 Review: A Derivative Summer Blockbuster That Still Entertains

"Stranger Things 4" doesn't have an original thought in its head, and I say that in the most friendly way possible. I am not mocking the show for its unoriginality; I am merely stating it as fact. Indeed, I'd argue that if you pressed creators The Duffer Brothers on this, they'd freely concede that yes, the latest season of the big Netflix hit is probably the most derivative yet. It's also entertaining as hell; a summer blockbuster dressed up as an action-packed TV series. Everything is bigger this season; it's a sprawling, globe-trotting adventure that is constantly cutting between a huge cast of characters. And everything unfolding here feels both wildly exciting and eye-rollingly familiar. "Stranger Things" has always been about wearing its influences on its sleeve. Indeed, that's part of the show's power. Its frequent familiarity makes it feel more lived-in than it really is. By drawing on ideas and concepts solidified by folks like Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, "Stranger Things" is playing with, and preying on, our nostalgia. 

Once again, "Stranger Things" freely pulls from Spielberg and King, while also throwing in plenty of other references — or rip-offs, if you want to be crude — from other '80s (and sometimes '90s) pop entertainment. Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is the biggest influence on the season, and the show doesn't even try to hide it. They have a character flat-out reference the film, and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, makes a cameo appearance. But the "Nightmare"-influenced story is just one part of a somewhat exhausting season. There are many balls up in the air here, and it's to the credit of the Duffers and their team that the show skillfully juggles them all with very few stumbles. Yes, we've seen almost all of what's happening here before in some other form, but darn it, it's still fun to watch. There's a breathlessness to the pacing as the season jumps around to various places and various groups of characters, all of whom are connected in one way or another. 

When we last left the show, super-powered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) had saved the day yet again, and lost her powers in the process. Her surrogate father Jim Hopper (David Harbour) was believed to be dead, but by now everyone knows that's not true — Hopper is alive, as the promotional material for the season has made abundantly clear. But he's in pretty bad shape, locked away in a Russian prison. Without someone to take care of her, Eleven has left Hawkins, Indiana, and moved to California with Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), who is also mourning Hopper, and her sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Back in Hawkins, Eleven's boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is now in high school with his friends Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). But the once tight-knit gang of friends has splintered a bit. Lucas is now on the basketball team and palling around with the popular kids. Mike and Dustin, meanwhile, have joined a new D&D group led by opinionated weirdo Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Lucas has also drifted away from his former girlfriend, Max (Sadie Sink), who is going through a bout of major depression following the death of her troubled stepbrother Billy. Then there's Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who feels herself growing apart from Jonathan, her boyfriend. And of course, babysitter and man of great hair Steve (Joe Keery) is still hanging around Hawkins, now with his constant (platonic) companion Robin (Maya Hawke). 

Of course, since this is "Stranger Things," strange(r) things begin to happen pretty quickly. Folks in Hawkins just can't catch a break. There's a new monster in town, the creepy Vecna, who is targeting teens in very Freddy Krueger-like ways. 

A support group for people who experience the supernatural

Rather than stay firmly within Hawkins, "Stranger Things 4" gets to explore new locations. As a result, several different plot threads unfold. There's the scary stuff going on in Hawkins. Then there's Eleven dealing with her loss of powers in California while being bullied by some of the most sadistic high school kids in history. And then there's also the plotline involving Hopper in Russia, and the plan for Joyce and her new side-kick Murray (Brett Gelman) to hopefully rescue him. It's a lot to take in, and the show knows it. So much so that every episode this season is super-sized; not a single episode clocks in under an hour. You'd think longer episodes would give these many threads room to breathe, but "Stranger Things 4" is overloaded to exhaustion. We'll cut from one scene in Hawkins to another scene in Russia to another scene somewhere else, and then back again. It can get dizzying. 

A lack of originality should sink this season, especially with so much going on. And yet, I found myself thrilled by the break-neck speed at which the show throws one giant, lightning-paced scene after another our way. The characters almost never sit still; they're forever running, biking, fighting, or screaming. I imagine if events of this magnitude were really happening to a group of kids they'd all be certifiably insane by now, but these kids have been down this road before. They've butted heads with the supernatural three times already, so in some ways, all the madness of this season is business as usual. 

The original core group remains strong, although once again, the series sequesters Brown away from most of her co-stars. And yes, they all look older now, and at first, it's a little jarring to see these kids look so, well, grown-up. But that fades pretty quickly as we get swept up in the adventure. Harbour remains the show's MVP, and he goes through serious hell this season. But "Stranger Things" also has a knack for giving us new characters who don't seem out of place. Sink's Max felt a little off during her first season (season 2), but by season 3 she was an essential member of the team, and gets even more to do this season. Last season gave us Hawke's Robin, who became a fan favorite from the jump, similar to the way Lucas' hilarious, no-nonsense little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) became a major character after a few scene-stealing moments. This time, we have new players like Eddie, the D&D group leader who seems completely obnoxious during his first scene, only to be revealed as a charming, funny guy. We also meet Argyle (Eduardo Franco). Franco's performance is funny, but the writing turns him into little more than Comic Relief Stoner Guy. 

What connects all these characters is their chance encounters with things that go bump in the night. In a way, the show has become a story about a support group for people who experience the supernatural. Every time a new season unleashes some new horror, the circle grows, with new members inducted into the club via their proximity to the weird and unexplained. And that's part of the show's charm, too — that all these outcasts and weirdos have found each other in the midst of all this chaos. 

A summer blockbuster

You could shrug all of this off by saying "Stranger Things 4" does little more than play the hits. And that's true; familiarity is essential to the show's DNA. And yet, it never feels tired or overdone. There's no sense of "Been there, done that." Yes, we've come across the thrills and chills here before in other forms, but that doesn't mean they don't still maintain their power. It helps that the cast is so charismatic, and the filmmaking is often so surprisingly strong — there's even a big one-take action scene thrown in, with characters scrambling through gunfire, that feels genuinely exciting and scary. 

The longer episodes never feel bloated, and the series actually has a little fun playing with our expectations. We're so trained to feel a show's runtime without looking at our watches, and when something big happens and then the screen cuts to black, that usually means the episode has ended. In a neat bit of trickery, "Stranger Things 4" fakes us out more than once. When an hour has gone by and we expect an episode to end, some big, crazy moment will happen and then the screen will indeed cut to black. "Ah, it's over!" we think — only for the show to then cut to a completely new scene, revealing that the episode isn't over after all. 

As fun as this all is, you can still see through the facade and spot the cracks in the foundation. The show takes a lot of lazy shortcuts, such as having characters instantly draw the correct conclusions in order to move on to the next scene as quickly as possible. And while suspension of disbelief is essential for a show like this that deals with the inexplicable, there are more than a few explanations here that don't hold water. On top of that, there are countless scenes set in dark locations that are nearly impossible to see. I know dark and shadowy spots are baked into a show of this nature, but damn it, we should still be able to see what's happening on the screen. 

None of this is enough to sink the show, though. "Stranger Things 4" is hitting familiar notes, but they still sound great. The series is a fine-tuned machine by now, designed to deliver a maximum amount of entertainment dressed up in the clothing of nostalgia. Season 4 will not convert anyone who has already given up on the show, but those still invested in the misadventures of the kids from Hawkins are going to have a blast. They used to play big, loud, sweet, fun entertainment like this at the multiplex on hot summer days, but now we'll have to settle for Netflix.

"Stranger Things 4" hits Netflix on May 27, 2022. Two additional final episodes will follow on July 1, 2022.