Rocky Balboa was a down-on-his-luck, lumpy, muscular palooka when the Rocky franchise began, an underdog granted a fairly fortunate opportunity.
He’s a millionaire with a marble body by Rocky IV, and the only way he can remain an underdog is to battle a towering monster in Russia. Victories that are only symbolic are insufficient. He needs to put an end to global communism.
I enjoy Rocky IV, but its thunderous thrills have little in common with Rocky’s endearing charm. The only reason I wouldn’t claim Stranger Things has achieved the Rocky IV stage of its artistic progression is that Rocky IV’s theatrical run time is 91 minutes, which is seven minutes less than the last of seven episodes launching as the show’s last season’s first “half.”
Stranger Things’ midseason finale is 98 minutes long, and five of the last six episodes are over 70 minutes long. If the fourth season of Stranger Things isn’t at least somewhat inspired by Rocky IV, it may be the only landmark picture from the 1980s that hasn’t influenced the Duffer Brothers in their ever-expanding pastiche that no longer fits inside the confines of regular television.
Otherwise, no one at Netflix has the power or motivation to implement those restrictions. Stranger Things’ fourth season is the largest, scariest, and most ambitious Stranger Things season yet, with two additional feature-length episodes set to premiere in July.
It’s also the least charming, humorous, and imaginative season yet, which isn’t to say that those qualities are completely absent; rather, the effort to focus on moments of human relatability is sometimes overshadowed by attempts at scale. Six months have passed since the so-called Battle of Starcourt.
Joyce (Winona Ryder) has left Indiana for a Spielbergian California suburb with Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Eleven, believing Hopper (David Harbour) is dead (Millie Bobby Brown). Eleven misses Mike as she struggles to adjust to life without her talents (Finn Wolfhard).
Jonathan misses Nancy (Natalia Dyer), but he might not be fully convinced that they’ll rejoin at college. Mike and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have found a nerdy niche in Hawkins’ D&D club, which is run by newcomer Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn).
Max (Sadie Sink) is often melancholy, while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has enlarged his social circle warming the bench for the basketball team. Nancy is hard at work on the school newspaper, and Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) have swapped mall jobs for video shop positions, providing the Duffy Brothers with a plethora of movie allusions.
Then people start dying in the most heinous ways imaginable — this is Stranger Things’ most violent and frequently filthy season ever — and it all comes back to the Upside Down. In the meantime, Hopper isn’t quite as dead as Joyce believes. In fact, he is still alive and well in a Soviet prison.
That’s a lot, and that’s before you get to the season’s new arrivals, which include Eduardo Franco as Argyle, Grace Van Dien as Chrissy, Game of Thrones veteran Tom Wlaschiha as a Russian jail guard, and Jamie Campbell Bower as “Friendly Orderly.”
Stranger Things was virtually a “tiny” show when it first aired, with episodes often lasting 40 to 50 minutes. Everything happened in Hawkins, a small town with a government research facility and access to a parallel dimension. This was something I was complaining about by the time we got to the second and third seasons.
Hawkins, once more? Back to the Upside Down? Another demogorgon, perhaps?
Even minor additions felt constrained, demonstrating a strange lack of profound mythological interest in the Upside Down and its terrifying inhabitants. So kudos to the fourth season, which really does give us more details about what was happening with Eleven and her various doctors — Paul Reiser and Matthew Modine return in different capacities — and a much fuller geographical and zoological survey of the Upside Down.
There are critters we’ve never seen, with more tentacles and pointy teeth and leathery wings. After the first season kept anything regarding special effects to the bare, cost-cutting minimum, there’s no doubt that Netflix simply opened the special effects bank vault to the directors — the Duffers, Shawn Levy and Nimrod Antal — and said “Do what you need to do.”
The results are impressive and frightful and frequently numbing, because the creative workarounds that let the show generate simmering tension without needing to show everything are no longer in evidence. So points to the fourth season, which gives us a lot more information on Eleven and her many doctors — Paul Reiser and Matthew Modine both return in different roles — as well as a much more comprehensive topographical and zoological survey of the Upside Down.
There are monsters with more tentacles, pointy teeth, and leathery wings that we’ve never seen before. After keeping special effects to a bare, cost-cutting minimum in the first season, it’s safe to assume Netflix simply handed over the special effects bank vault to the directors — the Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, and Nimrod Antal — and said, “Do what you need to do.”
Because of the inventive workarounds that allow the programme to produce simmering tension without resorting to violence, the consequences are amazing, terrifying, and frequently numbing. There are several locales, dimensions, and timelines, and the characters are divided into various combinations.
The authors are aware that certain combinations – Dustin and Steve, Robin and Steve, Steve and Anyone Really — are ideal for humour, while others are good for romance and vulnerability, despite the fact that there is very little time for either, which is insane given how long these episodes are.
But, contrary to popular belief, it is not one long film because the A-story/B-story/C-story/D-story structure is entirely based on television The stories aren’t all equally interesting or progressing at the same rate.
However, the editing frequently gives the impression that someone believes they are, and different stories drag in different episodes. The part in California, where Mike goes out to visit his girlfriend for spring break, is the most obvious drag, with Hopper’s time in Russia moving at an unusually glacial pace a close second.
Everything would definitely run more smoothly if you took the Russian sequences from each episode and combined them into a single Russian hour. It’s clear that this should have been a 13-episode season that was strangely crammed into nine episodes with little regard for the optimal flow for delivering this story. Another issue is the children.
They’ve all matured far more than the story’s timeline allows, and puberty, along with the creatures in the Upside Down, may be considered the season’s Big Bad. But it’s not that the youthful actors have aged badly or that their abilities as actors have deteriorated over time.
The issue is that the writers haven’t found fresh qualities for them, so they’re stuck performing a lot of the same things, whether it’s Brown’s near-alien intensity, Matarazzo’s consistent comedic timing, or McLaughlin’s appealing earnestness.
Sink, who joined the group in the second season, has established herself as perhaps the best performer of her generation, and she’ll be performing more emotional heavy lifting this season with the help of Kate Bush.
Nothing with the young kids feels as groundbreaking as Keery did in the second season when the writers recognised he was amusing, or Dyer has consistently been. When the writers discover a way to extend Robin as a character, there’s a thrill that bursts off the screen, and it’s unclear when it happened, but Hawke has quickly become my favourite aspect of the show, despite the fact that she could have been an afterthought.
Whether it’s Harbour’s disturbed present form of Hopper or Brett Gelman’s Murray Bauman, who goes from recurring amusement to cast regular, the grown-ups keep receiving new aspects. Quinn, Franco, and, increasingly, Heaton all appear to be closer in age to the Ryder/Harbour part of the cast than the Hawkins children.
Stranger Things‘ classic nostalgic gestures — direct tributes this season include WarGames, Altered States, and The NeverEnding Story — are kept from becoming boring by the three-year absence, and I applaud certain attempts to innovate.
That isn’t to say I don’t miss the innocence and kindness, or that I don’t believe there were seven outstanding 50-minute episodes of TV here, albeit sitting through 70+-minute programmes to locate them can be tiresome. It’s no longer the underdog.
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