Kids on Bikes: freedom and nostalgia from ‘E.T.’ to ‘Stranger Things’

When Stranger Things first premiered in 2016, it was hailed as the pinnacle of 80s nostalgia. Sure, it was set in 1983, had an iconic Stephen King-inspired opening credits, and was packed with a soundtrack of 80s classics. But what really made the show feel so perfectly in tune with that nostalgic feeling? I’d argue it was the way it leaned into the best sci-fi subgenre: “Kids on Bikes.”

Credit: Netflix

Bikes have been part of movie storytelling for decades and are often connected to kids, going all the way back to 1948’s The Bicycle Thief. But in the 1980s, the Kids on Bikes genre was truly born. And as with all great things, its origins lie with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Undoubtedly the most iconic image from E.T. (and of all film history) is Elliott’s bike flying in front of the moon. It’s so iconic, it became the logo of Spielberg’s production company Amblin. Bikes are essential to the story of E.T., especially in the finale. And the legacy of E.T. cemented many of the traits of a Kids on Bikes story that would follow for decades to come.

Credit: Universal/Amblin

The 1980s were full of legendary installments of Kids on Bikes movies, like The Goonies, Explorers, and The Lost Boys. These movies further embedded Kids on Bikes stories within the adventure, supernatural, and science fiction genres. Most Kids on Bikes stories in the years to come would continue this trend.

Another milestone in the Kids on Bikes history is 1986’s Stand By Me. This incredible Rob Reiner film brings in the second-most important aspect of the genre: nostalgia. The story of Stand By Me is told as a flashback to 1959 from the perspective of an older version of one of the main characters. Looking back to the past becomes a crucial piece of the Kids on Bikes genre.

Nostalgia also played a major role in the few Kids on Bikes stories from the 1990s, like 1993’s The Sandlot. Like Stand By Me, The Sandlot is a nostalgia story, set in 1962. Other notable 90s Kids on Bikes stories include My Girl and Now and Then, which both use the nostalgia element of the genre while staying away from sci-fi.

Fast forwarding to the 2010s, nostalgia for the 1980s and 1990s reached an all-time high in the entertainment industry, so it’s no surprise then that Kids on Bikes stories have seen an incredible resurgence in recent years. The three biggest and purest examples of recent Kids on Bikes stories are 2011’s Super 8, 2016’s Stranger Things and 2017’s adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. All three of these stories expertly combine the sci-fi or supernatural elements with the nostalgia. More specifically, these stories are all set during the years when the Kids on Bikes genre was first formed.

Now the elements of a Kids on Bikes story are easy to notice once you’ve seen a few. As previously mentioned, most of these stories are firmly set in science fiction, supernatural, or adventure genres. All good sci-fi or supernatural stories act as metaphors for real-world experiences, and Kids on Bikes stories use aliens or monsters as metaphors for adolescence, growing up, and overcoming fears of the unknown. The kids in IT have to overcome their personal fears and traumas to defeat Pennywise, for example. And the main character in Super 8 learns to move forward through the grief of losing his mother.

Another element of Kids on Bikes stories is the unbalance in intellect between the main kid characters and their parents. Adults in these stories are either blissfully unaware of what their kids are doing or too distracted to notice. Elliott’s mom in E.T. doesn’t realize that her children are walking around with an alien covered up with a bedsheet on Halloween – even after taking their picture. Mike and Nancy Wheeler’s dad on Stranger Things literally could not care less about what is happening with his kids; by Season 4 he’s still wishing everyone would get out of his house and leave him alone. And all but one of the parents in The Goonies only show up in the movie’s final scene.

Credit: Warner Bros./Amblin

But the most important theme in a Kids on Bikes story is what the bikes themselves represent: freedom, possibility, and opportunity. Bikes in these stories allow the kids to have a sense of autonomy (aided by oblivious parents) and the ability to explore or investigate the strange things happening in their town. No matter when a Kids on Bikes story is set, that first taste of freedom and yearning to see the wider world is universal. That’s what I love about these stories – finding your place in the universe, discovering who you are, venturing out on your own and testing your limits, and maybe finding out that there’s something out there greater than you.

Credit: StudioCanal/Film4

Stranger Things will soon come to an end with Season 5, and with it, the end of a major era in the story of the Kids on Bikes genre. I have no doubt the genre will endure and continue to evolve – movies like 2011’s Attack the Block are already doing that, but that sweet spot of nostalgic 80s sci-fi will always hold a special place in my heart.

Top 6 movies of 2022 so far

It’s insane that we’re already halfway through 2022, yet here we are. It finally feels like movie theaters are climbing their way out of the pandemic hole and there are plenty of incredible movies to display. From franchise hits to original surprises, here are my top 6 movies of 2022 so far:

  1. Everything Everywhere All at Once

Move over, Doctor Strange, you’re not the only multiverse in town this year. Everything Everywhere All at Once follows Evelyn, a Chinese American laundromat owner and her family as they are swept away into an adventure to save the multiverse. Along the way, they discover the importance of family, love, acceptance, and a universe where everyone has hot dogs for fingers.

One of the most surprising movies in my recent memory, EEAAO really leans into the endless opportunities a multiversal story provides. The cast of this movie is spectacular, but Michelle Yeoh is a powerhouse, perfectly balancing the wackiness with the emotional core.

  1. RRR

A three-hour marathon of historical fiction centered around two Indian revolutionaries during British rule in the early 1900s, RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) is an action epic, a musical, a buddy comedy, an inspirational saga, and a mythologic masterpiece.

It’s difficult to put into words what it’s like to watch this movie. I was transfixed. Movies like RRR make you fall in love with cinema all over again. The visuals are breathtaking, and it has so much adrenaline and emotion throughout – in some ways it’s exhausting, but it also revs you up and makes you want to fight a tiger after it’s over.

  1. Top Gun: Maverick

Leave it to Tom Cruise to save movie theaters and perfect the legacy sequel. I like the original Top Gun well enough, but Maverick is astonishingly good. It fully embodies the spirit of the original while catching up with the original cast, introducing likable new characters you can emotionally invest in, and telling a simple, self-contained story. And with more than a billion dollars at the box office already, it’s clearly the most crowd-pleasing movie of the year.

The advancements in camera technology easily elevate the action sequences in Maverick over the original film – well, that and Tom Cruise’s unquenchable thirst to find ways to potentially kill himself filming practical stunts and effects. The aerial sequences are stunning, and I had to consciously remind myself to relax and release the tension throughout my body because they were so gripping. The need for speed is alive!

  1. The Batman

I’ve already written at length about how this movie finally made me understand and love Batman and how he finally felt like the main character of his own movie. I love the vibe and tone of The Batman, and Robert Pattinson’s emo-style Bruce Wayne realistically feels like a guy who would put on a bat suit and fight crime at night. Zoe Kravitz’s captivating Catwoman and Paul Dano’s truly terrifying Riddler perfectly complement Pattinson’s energy and lend believability to the residents of Matt Reeves’s Gotham.

  1. The Northman

The first half of 2022 has delivered some fantastic new action movies, and The Northman is one of the best. The entire movie vibrates with a primal brutality through a story that feels elemental and mythic.

Based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman is a story of revenge. Stunning visuals accompany our hero on his journey through love, horror, victory, and defeat. The action is loud, ruthless, and propulsive. It’s a visual feast and the core revenge plot is full of twists and surprises that makes for a thrilling watch.

  1. Cha Cha Real Smooth

Growing up is hard, and your 20s are an especially weird time. Writer, director, and star Cooper Raiff   perfectly portrays that awkwardness and what it’s like to learn some harsh truths about the real world in Cha Cha Real Smooth. Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college graduate who moves back home and navigates his way through friendships, family, and hopeless romance.

Normally I’d only do a top 5 list, but I loved this movie so much so I couldn’t leave it off. Andrew is clearly a dumb, often selfish, and undriven 22-year-old, but he has a compassionate heart for the people he grows to care about. Dakota Johnson is mysterious and captivating, but the real breakout is Vanessa Burghardt, who plays Johnson’s daughter with autism. The cast combined with Cooper Raiff’s style of dry humor that sits right in my sweet spot makes this an instant favorite.