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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.