Film Discussion

Throwback 30: *batteries not included

In 2018, the most immediately striking thing about *batteries not included is that the Fix-Its, the little mechanical creatures that the movie revolves around, are essentially living drones. If this movie were made today, this drone-story might take a more sinister direction, as seen in a recent episode of The X-Files. But back in the innocent(!) 80s, the idea of mechanical things that could fly by themselves was merely whimsical and to be wished for.

With nods to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Fix-Its are both flying saucer and alien in one. They appear in the sky one night – small espoused spaceships in search of a power source – seemingly in response to a prayer, a wish, a desperate cry for help, from the residents of an old, run-down apartment block in New York’s East Village: the last building standing amongst the rubble of a demolition site.

The Fix-Its are cartoonishly male and female – angular versus curved, small yellow eyes versus large blue ones – and their babies, when they appear, are even more ridiculously, squeal-inducingly cutesy. But why ‘Fix-Its’? Because, we are told, “they like to fix things”: ripped paper, shattered glass, shredded electricals, broken china, even – metaphorically speaking – human hearts. You name it, they can put it back together again, from rubble to restoration.

But why do they like to fix things? Is it out of kindness? Or is it some primitive need, or inbuilt programming? Where are they from? How did they get here? And why? We’ll never know. And we don’t really need to. As Frank – who believes that they have come in response to his prayer – says, “The quickest way to end a miracle is to ask it why it is. Or what it wants.”

They are a fascinating concept. Robots that are able to reproduce, scavenging metal and electrical items to feed and repair themselves, literally using tin cans to birth a new generation of their species. Are they dangerous? Could their awesome power to heal be turned to more destructive means? Possibly. But as this is a kids’ movie, we merely see them threaten a couple of times, their eyes flashing red as they hover menacingly.

Watching the Fix-Its and their antics is where the joy is in this movie. Their actions and reactions fall somewhere between human and animal, and we understand their feelings and intentions without the need for speech. We rejoice with them when they give birth, we laugh at their mishaps (falling into a pot of soup, getting scooped into a burger bun), and we gasp at their misfortunes and near-misses. The visual effects, 30 years on, still look surprisingly good, and it is fortunate that *batteries not included was made towards the end of an era that still used models, rather than the early CGI that it might have been just a few short years later.

But as well as comedy and playfulness, and bearing in mind that this is primarily a kids’ film, *batteries not included is also something of a heartbreaker. One could accuse it of overblown sentimentality, but that wouldn’t detract from the truths, both emotional and factual, that it lays bare.

The 1980s was a decade of development, an era of progress at any price. Resistance to regeneration – to gentrification – was something that was happening at the time, and twee though it may be, *batteries not included was relevant in its theme of disenfranchised citizens battling to retain their rights and their community heritage.

Frank and Faye Riley (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy), have lived in their tiny building since the 1940s or 50s, running Riley’s Café on the ground floor. Now they are elderly, and frail, and Faye is suffering from dementia. Harry Noble (Frank McRae) is an ex-champion boxer, gentle and afraid, who spends his time watching TV and only speaks in phrases from commercials. Marisa (Elizabeth Peña) is pregnant, and waiting for her musician boyfriend to come home to her. And Mason (Dennis Boutsikaris), is an unappreciated artist, whose girlfriend has just left him.

These five, the only tenants left in the building, have come under harassment from corporate thug Carlos, working on behalf of a property developer who wants them out. They’re doing what they can, but the police don’t care, and the attempt to get a historic preservation order on the building comes just too late, after the building has been subjected to violence and destruction. The intimidation and sheer cruelty used by Carlos and his gang is realistic and upsetting, and eventually crosses the line to almost-lethal.

In terms of emotional truths, *batteries not included is about wish fulfilment: about someone – or something – literally swooping in to fix and save what would otherwise be broken and lost. But it is also about the regrets of the past. Frank is the one who wishes aloud for someone to help them, but implicit within this is a wish that he had taken better care of things, that he could fix what has already been destroyed. As the story unfolds, we learn that his behaviour towards his son, Bobby, led to the accident that killed him, and subsequently (we assume) to Faye’s mental decline. When the Fix-Its arrive, they become surrogate children to Faye, and she finds her joy again. They repair damage, literally and emotionally.

*batteries not included might be about resistance in one sense, but is also about acceptance in another: acceptance of one’s own truth. Frank acknowledges his part in Bobby’s death, and Faye accepts that Bobby is gone. Marisa accepts that her itinerant boyfriend is not going to be there for her, and Mason accepts that sometimes miracles do happen. This film is also, in all kinds of ways, about family, generations, and the value of preserving history.

Originally the concept for an episode of Amazing Stories, this sweetly sentimental Spielberg production is none the less delightful for having a marketing caveat as its title. It has been 30 years since *batteries not included premiered in the UK, and it’s been at least a decade since I last watched it, so I was very surprised to find that my emotional reactions to its key moments had barely changed from the first time that I watched it as a child.

If you’re going to watch it, or re-watch it, as an adult, try to do so with an uncynical heart. If you do, you might find that it is still as magical and miraculous as you remember.

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