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An eight-part series that wants to evoke the scary movies of an earlier era, Stranger Things is something different for Netflix — a nostalgia piece set during the 1980s that feels designed to appeal to kids as well as adults.
The biggest star in Stranger Things, which starts streaming Friday, is Winona Ryder. She plays Joyce Byers, an Illinois mother who’s shocked by the sudden disappearance of her son Will (Noah Schnapp). Will’s trio of close friends — Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) — are middle-schoolers on a mission: They want to find their pal, and they set off on their bicycles to hunt for Will, their greatest weapon a slingshot.
The boys find someone other than Will, however: a lost girl with a buzzcut skull who refers to herself only as Eleven (she’s played by Millie Brown). The girl is in a state of mute terror at first and seems to have been the subject of some kind of scientific experiment overseen by a haughty scientist played by a Matthew Modine with a lustrous mane of silver-white hair.
Stranger Things was created and written by Matt and Ross Duffer, who bill themselves as the Duffer Brothers; they also worked on Wayward Pines. The brothers seem to have consumed every early Stephen King novel (without picking up on King’s gift for clever dialogue), the King film adaptation Stand by Me, and every horror film from the 1980s. The Duffers saturate Stranger Things with the mood from that era, but unfortunately, their show also possesses what so many ’80s scary movies have when viewed now — a slow pace of thudding ominousness.
Things spends too much repetitious time trying to convince us that Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are cute kids, and the show’s sense of foreshadowing when it comes to revealing something that’s supposed to scare the daylights out of us becomes an exercise in tedium. So does the character Eleven, partly because for a very long stretch, the nature of her distress is so ill-defined: Does she talk haltingly and not understand simple words (“What is friend?”) because of some trauma, or because she’s an otherworldly creature? After a while, it’s hard to care.
Ryder is game as Joyce, even if the role requires her mostly to freak out and scream and cry about the absence of her son over and over and over — Ryder does all she can to vary her upset. The child actors are uneven, and it’s difficult to tell whether that’s because of their abilities or the tiresome sentimentality sketched into the portrait of their friendship. Ultimately, Stranger Things will probably work best for an audience that wants to feel nostalgic for the decade it tries so hard to evoke.
Stranger Things begins streaming Friday on Netflix.