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 10 favorite Spielberg movies

If you walked up to any random stranger on the street and asked them to name a movie director, I’d bet 9 out of 10 would say Steven Spielberg. The most commercially successful director in the past sixty years, he single-handedly invented the modern blockbuster and has produced some of the most iconic movies of all time. He’s even responsible for the PG-13 movie rating when the second Indiana Jones movie and Gremlins (which Spielberg produced) were deemed a little too dark and intense for kids.

It may sound like a boring answer, but Spielberg is by far my favorite director. He’s proven to be an expert at both crowd-pleasing blockbusters and thoughtful, historical dramas. While not every single one of his movies is a hit, he always finds a way to inject the stories he tells with heart. And no one is better at exuberant adventure stories than him. The burst of emotion in all Spielberg’s movies are heightened by the otherworldly soundtracks from John Williams, who has scored all but five of Spielberg’s movies.

Ranking my favorite Spielberg movies is an almost impossible task – the top three below could honestly be in any order – but here are my 10 favorites from the legend himself:

  1. Jurassic Park (1993)
Copyright Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Jurassic Park is a perfect movie. The thing that stands out most nearly 30 years later(!!) is how incredible the special effects still are. Those dinosaurs look real. That skill, combined with a wonderful cast, make this movie hum with excitement from beginning to end. The way the movie so seamlessly transitions from the wonder and awe of an adventure movie to a horror movie – it’s easy to see the DNA (no pun intended) of Jaws in Jurassic Park, particularly in the deployment of the T-rex. The initial T-rex attack in the rain is one of the single greatest sequences in film history.

The characters in Jurassic Park mean the world to me. Tim is one of my favorite child characters ever, from his never-ending questions to his “do-you-think-he-saurus” jokes to his sad “I threw up” after the T-rex attack. I love Lex’s computer skills and the way she shakes the Jell-O when the raptors show up in the kitchen. Laura Dern’s Dr. Sattler is an icon and Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is the internet meme that keeps on giving.

And yes, that John Williams score is masterful.

  1. Jaws (1975)
Copyright Universal Pictures

What is there to say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said? It’s one of the most important movies of the past 60 years, creating the template for summer blockbusters that we still follow today. The way Spielberg teases the shark (along with the iconic John Williams theme) before the big reveal never ceases to amaze. Jaws is a horror movie that you don’t realize is a horror movie, but it perfectly escalates the tension in the first half of the story and creates an air of fear and anxiety among the characters and the audience.

You’re always going to need a bigger boat.

  1. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Copyright Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

No movie has more consistently made me cry on every rewatch than the last 10-15 minutes of E.T. I have such a strange history with this movie – I watched it as a kid, but my sister was so terrified of E.T. that we never watched it again, so it didn’t make a big impression on me. Then I remember going on the E.T. ride at Universal Studios, which left a surprisingly strong impression in my mind.

But watching E.T. again as an adult, especially after fully recognizing my true love of movies from the 1980s, something just clicked. This story about a sad, lonely boy and a scared, lonely alien finding and learning to understand each other pulls at your heartstrings in just the right way. It’s a story about finding your place in the universe, family and home.

Like Jurassic Park, E.T. expertly and subtly switches genres from coming-of-age adventure, through a horror detour and ending up as an escape movie. It’s wonderful. And shoutout to Henry Thomas, whose performance as Elliot is superb.

E.T. telling Elliot “I’ll be right here” in the finale just completely breaks me every single time.

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Copyright Paramount, Lucasfilm

The first four movies on this list are all certified masterpieces. The Indiana Jones franchise perfected the adventure movie, gave Harrison Ford a second spot on the greatest movie characters of all time list, and is responsible for yet another iconic John Williams movie theme.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is packed full of humor, action and horror with memorable villains, the incomparable Marion Ravenwood and the Ark of the Covenant. It’s timeless and classic, feeling connected to both Casablanca and modern-day superhero movies.

Indy would be Spielberg’s first and (other than The Lost World) only franchise he’d return to, and it’s easy to see how much he loved these characters and this world.

  1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Copyright Columbia Pictures

Spielberg followed up his story about the horror below us in Jaws with the possibilities above us in Close Encounters. Like E.T. a few years later, the aliens in Close Encounters did not come to Earth for invasion, but rather communication. The mystery unfolds slowly in the first half of the movie with sequences both awe-inspiring (Barry opening the door to the alien lights) and hilarious (Neary throwing plants inside his kitchen window).

By the time the main characters reach Wyoming, the action quickens until the world seems to stand still during the “conversation” with the mother ship. John Williams’ score plays such an integral role in the finale that unites humanity and the aliens in perfect harmony.

  1. Schindler’s List (1993)
Copyright Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Schindler’s List is clearly not a “fun” movie to watch, but it’s probably the most important movie Spielberg ever made. I almost didn’t include it on my list because it’s not necessarily a favorite, but it is undeniably one of the best movies Spielberg has ever made.

The true story of a man who saved over a thousand Jews from the Nazis during World War II, Schindler’s List is harrowing. I personally haven’t watched it since high school, but there are images that I can still recall because of how powerful they are.

It’s essential viewing for anyone.

  1. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Copyright DreamWorks Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

The wildly true story of a teenage conman, Catch Me If You Can thrives on the electric energy of its two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse game that hides a deep loneliness and sadness within its main character. While he’s running from the law, DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale is also clearly running from himself. Spielberg expertly strikes the balance between the Frank’s antics and his personal struggles.

Like so many of Spielberg’s movies, Catch Me If You Can is about family, especially complex families. It’s exciting and dramatic, somber and entertaining.

  1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Copyright Paramount, Amblin Entertainment

In some ways, Saving Private Ryan is a companion piece to Schindler’s List. Also set during World War II, Saving Private Ryan shows the horrors of war and the impact on those sent to fight in it.

It goes without saying at this point that the opening D-Day sequence completely revolutionized war movies. Spielberg puts the audience in the middle of the chaos and just lets it play out around us. Once you’re out of breath and exhausted from the cacophony, we follow a tired crew sent out on a rescue mission. Saving Private Ryan shows the value of a single life and brings a world war to a personal level.

  1. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Copyright Paramount, Amblin Entertainment

Spielberg’s only animated feature, The Adventures of Tintin is a delightful adventure that feels like a spiritual cousin to Indiana Jones. Based on the Tintin comics, the movie follows the titular hero and an old sea captain in search of a lost treasure.

Tintin uses a mix of motion capture and computer-generated animation, but the movie finds the perfect balance between realism and keeping the cartoonish look of its characters. Unlike other motion capture movies like The Polar Express, there’s a fluidity to the characters’ movement and not so much of an uncanny valley in their expressions.

The action in Tintin is superb. In particular, there’s an extended one-shot chase sequence that’s spectacular to watch. It’s clear Spielberg reveled in the opportunity to make an animated movie with complete freedom of where he could place his camera. Tintin is certainly one of Spielberg’s most underrated movies, so definitely give it a watch.

  1. West Side Story (2021)
Copyright 20th Century Studios, Amblin Entertainment

I’ve already talked about how much I love Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. The updates made to the source material elevate the story and supporting characters, the cast is sensational, the choreography is mesmerizing, and just about every other aspect of the movie is outstanding.

Only a director like Spielberg could direct his first musical as his 33rd movie and make it look so easy and also direct a remake of a classic, award-winning musical and somehow make it better. He knows how to capture and highlight the choreography and emotion in each scene. From the dance hall scene to “America,” each song is a highlight.

Honorable mentions:

Although I’ve listed my 10 favorite movies already, I just had to shout out a few more.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a surprisingly deep story about humanity and love that is driven by an outstanding Haley Joel Osment performance. Minority Report is one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen and has such a unique look and vibe throughout. The Terminal is another spectacular Tom Hanks performance and a much more emotional journey than you’d expect.

Why the 80s had the most excellent movies

Let me ask a question: is it possible to be nostalgic for a decade you never personally experienced? 

I was born in 1990, which was a pretty great time to be born in terms of movie history. My childhood in the 90s was defined by the Disney Renaissance and the birth of Pixar. The 2000s saw the rise of the first mega-franchises – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy – as well as the birth of the modern superhero movie. While I was in college, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its box office domination that changed cinema as we know it. Plus, there have been iconic masterpieces like Parasite, Knives Out, La La Land, Mad Max Fury Road, Moonlight, The Social Network, Shrek 2, Inception and more released over the past decade. 

But even though I’ve lived through some momentous movie eras, there’s something about movies made before I was born that continue to captivate me. Specifically, movies of the 1980s. 

Nostalgia tends to create cycles in pop culture. Usually every 20 or 30 years, new media will look back on the past to reflect, celebrate or even correct the childhood years of artist making the art. 

Think about the number of movies and shows from the 1970s and 1980s that were set in the 1950s – Grease, Happy Days, American Graffiti. These movies and shows presented the 50s in a golden light, as a simpler time. 

More recently, the 2010s similarly went all-in on nostalgia for the 1980s. Stranger Things, the remake of Stephen King’s IT, and Ready Player One relied heavily on 80s nostalgia to pull in audiences. Meanwhile, dozens of 80s classics like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, Ghostbusters and more received reboots and remakes to rekindle that 80s love. 

So why do I, someone who wasn’t even born in this decade, have such a love for 80s movies? 

Something about 80s movies makes everything feel like an adventure and fill you with a sense of wonder. Movies like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Goonies, Back to the Future and The Empire Strikes Back transported viewers into worlds both familiar and bizarre that still felt real. A lot of that comes down to the state of special effects in the 80s. It’s a little crazy to think about how creative movies had to be before the advancements of CGI and special effects. So many of the creatures and worlds we see in movies today are made in a computer, which couldn’t be done in the 80s. They had to make them for real.

Think about it: if E.T. was made today, E.T. would absolutely be a fully-CG character. Instead, the E.T.  puppet/suit existed in the environment of the movie and was able to interact with the kid actors, which surely helped them give such memorable performances. 

Likewise, Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the gremlins in Gremlins, the Xenomorphs in Aliens and dozens of other iconic creatures were all practical effects in the 80s that would have 100% been computer animated today. But the practicality of these characters gives them such weight and tangibility that they’re immediately believable and real. 

The 80s were also able to lay the groundwork for the rise of blockbusters and mega-franchises that we see today while also making new installments feel (mostly) fresh and new. While there are some that will call out blockbusters and franchises as being the death of cinema, these are the movies that tend to enter the collective zeitgeist and live on in pop culture. 

The concept of the modern blockbuster was introduced in the 1970s with Jaws and Star Wars, but the 80s perfected it. Both Star Wars and Jaws became franchises of their own throughout the 1980s: Star Wars grew with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Jaws continued with Jaws 2 in 1978 followed by Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge during the 80s. 

Almost all of the most popular and successful movies of the 80s have been adapted into franchises – many of which continue to this day. Indiana Jones, Aliens, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Blade Runner, Tron, The Terminator, Top Gun and more have produced sequels nearly 30 years after the originals. There’s a kinetic energy in these movies that filmmakers have been chasing and trying to recreate ever since.

The other genre perfected during the 1980s was the coming-of-age movie. The godfather of the coming-of-age genre was, of course, John Hughes. His masterful run during this decade created iconic classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.

Hughes’ characters that felt and looked like real teenagers connected with movie-going teens. Other successful coming-of-age movies from the 80s include Stand By Me, Heathers, The Outsiders, St. Elmo’s Fire, Can’t Buy Me Love, Say Anything, The Karate Kid, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Risky Business. In these movies, teens fall in and out of love, navigate high school, learn about the world and find out who they are. And sure, some of them compete in karate competitions or create a woman out of a computer program.

Many of these movies even jumpstarted the careers of some of the most successful actors of the last 40 years, including Tom Cruise, Patrick Dempsey, Rob Lowe, Keanu Reeves, John Cusack, Molly Ringwald, Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder. 

There are so many other iconic moments from 1980s film that helped define and shape pop culture for the decades to come. Horror became more popular in the 80s and included classics like The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, The Evil Dead, and the expansion of the Halloween franchise. Legendary comedy classics like The Princess Bride, Big, Beetlejuice, When Harry Met Sally, Airplane, Clue, the Vacation series, Caddyshack, and Beverly Hills Cop were released in the 80s. 

And so many of the most quotable moments in movie history came out of the 80s. Empire Strikes Back‘s “No…I am your father.” Back to the Future‘s “You built a time machine…out of a DeLorean?!” E.T.‘s “Phone home.” Bill and Ted‘s “Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes!” Aliens‘s “Get away from her, you bitch!” Top Gun‘s “I feel the need – the need for speed!” The Shining‘s “Here’s Johnny!” Indiana Jones‘s “Snakes…why’d it have to be snakes?” The Terminator‘s “I’ll be back.” Poltergeist‘s “They’re hereeee.” When Harry Met Sally‘s “I’ll have what she’s having.” Airplane‘s “And don’t call me Shirley.” These quotes and more have cemented themselves in pop culture history.

Of course, like any other decade, the 80s were not perfect. The overwhelming majority of movies released starred white actors directed by white men. Black Americans and people of color continued to struggle to get their stories told or recognized by the industry – success stories like Eddie Murphy or Spike Lee tended to be the exception to the rule. Casual (and sometimes blatant) misogyny and racism was prevalent in many films. And sure, you can say that those kinds of actions were “okay” by the standards of the time, but it’s still possible to love these movies while being critical of their outdated moments. 

So much of 80s movie culture was part of my childhood growing up in the 90s and early 2000s. The Star Wars movies are some of the first movies I remember watching. Seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in seventh grade was a landmark moment in my life. Watching E.T.  at too young an age has scarred my sister to this day. The Great Mouse Detective is an underrated Disney masterpiece and I will die on that hill.

Something about 80s movies always feels so warm and familiar to me, from ones that I rewatch regularly to ones that I’m seeing for the first time. Every decade of movies seems to have its own personality with the stories they tell, full of masterpieces and flops, but for me, movies of the 1980s will always hold a place above the rest.