August 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: *batteries not included (1987)

Before there was Up and before there was WALL-E, there was August's Underrated Movie of the Month (UMOTM), *batteries not included. It wasn't until I saw it again recently that I saw how much those two Pixar movies were influenced by it, but even more than that I was reminded why the movie had always existed as a nostalgic favorite in my head.

I thought I'd first seen *batteries not included in the movie theater until I checked its release date. I remember it being summer when I saw it, but according to IMDb it was released on December 18, 1987. Maybe I saw it a discount theater six months later or maybe I just thought it was summer because the movie is set during the summer and the characters sleep with their windows open. In any event, I loved it at first sight, but reading the reviews of it now has made it apparent that was likely because I was seven years old.

Janet Maslin kicked off the criticism in the New York Times: "...everything in the film has been designed in toymaker's terms. That includes the human characters, who are adults only in the way an 8-year-old might imagine them. Children may enjoy this, but their adult escorts will have a harder time....Batteries Not Included isn't the kind of film that prompts questions of any kind...the time for this brand of fantasy may have come and gone." Despite her obsession with marketing motives throughout her review, I never had any *batteries not included toys.

Rita Kempley received the baton in the Washington Post: "Here's my theory: Steven Spielberg was captured by aliens, brainwashed and forced to become their public relations man...Though directed by Matthew Robbins, it is an Amblin Entertainment feature rooted in the Spielbergian credo: Earthlings cannot cope without the little men upstairs...Casting tends to be racist...Perhaps Spielberg and his pawn Robbins want to implant maternal instincts in the collective consciousness...What a strange lesson to teach children -- that they are basically helpless. Batteries is a strange kids' movie, a queer mix of violence and otherworldly benevolence. It might have been a good idea, a story of the vanishing urban neighborhood and gentrification by tycoon. But half-pint aliens to the rescue? It's time E.T. went home." A little tired of Spielberg, eh, Rita?

Even Variety gave it a limp recommendation (with my emphasis in bold): "Batteries Not Included could have used more imaginative juices to distinguish it from other, more enchanting Spielbergian pics where lovable mechanical things solve earthly human dilemmas. Still, it's suitable entertainment for kids...has a good mix of personalities, even if perhaps Elizabeth Pena as an unwed mother may raise some questions in children's minds their parents just as soon would not answer." WOW, how far have we come in 20 years? According to a recent article I read, "a record-breaking 40% of babies born in 2007 had unmarried parents (that's up 25% from 2002)". And you can imagine what that 25% was up from since 1987. But perhaps this is another discussion for another place.

Did any critics praise this movie? Ah yes, trusty Ebert: "Cronyn and Tandy rescue the movie from looking altogether like a retread, and the saucers do their part, too. Designed by Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects wizards, the saucers swoop and vibrate and blink and purr and even have children...Batteries Not Included is a sweet, cheerful and funny family entertainment. "

Alright, so the consensus is that we'd seen this movie before. After all, in the decade prior to this movie audiences had already enjoyed E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cocoon, Short Circuit, and Flight of the Navigator,
among other sci-fi and/or benevolent alien movies. But just because *batteries not included wasn't a big creative leap for Spielberg and director Matthew Robbins, it doesn't mean it was any less enjoyable than the others.

Here are three reasons why this movie deserves more credit, despite the criticism that it was an worn out and altogether empty story:

1.) Old people. - Quick, name the last movie you saw starring actors older than age 70? Anything? What, maybe Gran Torino last year? Away from Her a couple years ago? We're much more likely to see young actors and actresses made up to be old these days, evidenced by The Reader, Benjamin Button and Love in the Time of Cholera (alright, in that they didn't look old so much as just dead). If we've forgotten, the 80's were a huge decade for seniors in Hollywood, primarily led by co-stars and spouses Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in Cocoon, *batteries not included and Cocoon: The Return. Tandy was also in Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes (ok, that was '91 - close enough).

As Faye and Frank Riley in *batteries not included, Tandy and Cronyn are a delight - she playing the senile but surprisingly witty wife, he playing the cantankerous and anxious husband. They delivered terrific performances here near the end of their respective careers, but you never hear about them because you never hear about this movie.

2.) Outstanding visual effects. - I love the look of this movie, with the warm sepia tones at the beginning and the cool sunset and evening shots throughout. It's a pretty enchanting set (filmed on location in the Lower East Side) to begin with, but the arrival of the "fix-its" cranks the visual goodness up to 11. Spielberg and Lucas and the folks at ILM were in familiar territory here with alien spacecraft and mannerisms, but the fix-its are really a stunning achievement in their own right, as good as anything the team had done to that point. Their movements are fluid and with simple changes in sound and "eye" movement, they really develop their own personalities, including the baby fix-its.

Looking back, *batteries not included was terribly overlooked during awards season. Only two films were even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, with Predator losing out to Innerspace. I'd be more upset if I didn't also love Innerspace.

3.) It accepted - or at least didn't reject - its 1980's identity. - *batteries not included could have been set in the future, or something else could have been changed to make its plot more believable, but it wasn't - it was completely at peace taking place in the 80's. The characters' wardrobes could not be from any other era, the shots of Times Square show a seedy and tourist-unfriendly place, and one of the characters, the former boxer Harry, speaks only in 1980's advertising ("We bring good things to life," "Don't leave home without," "Batteries not included," etc.). Also, one of the best lines of the movie, when Mason is trying to convince his girlfriend not to leave him: "This is the '80s! Nobody likes reality any more!," she exasperatingly scolds him as he she walks out the door. The result of these "period pieces" don't make the movie look dated, they just add to the nostalgia.

So there you have it - three reasons to revisit this movie and discover that it should be appreciated for getting a lot of things right, even if it didn't bring anything "new" to the table.


  1. Daniel: I had two thoughts when I first saw your post. 1) Holy shit, I forgot about that movie! 2) My mom (who took me to see it) was a very patient woman! This was before I read your roundup with the apt review that adult escorts might find it hard to sit through. I didn't cherish this movie as a kid, but I remember liking it. Thanks for the bit of nostalgia.

  2. Anyone who's read these UMOTM reviews knows that half of them from the 80's are simply picked because they bring back that nostalgia - this one, Return From Oz, The Boy Who Could Fly, etc.

    So are they "underrated" or just "memories from childhood"? A little of both, but I don't really care. I like to look back and see what was written about them, and if it was unfair (as I think it was in the case of these movies), then I try to even it out a little bit.

    Well if you saw it when you were young and it holds a happy place in the recesses of your head, maybe track it down when you have some free time and give it a look. At the very least I guarantee you will appreciate Tandy, Cronyn, and the special effects.

  3. I have not thought about this movie in more than a decade. Wow. I saw this in theater.

  4. Glad I can jog some memories. I'm telling you, this movie holds up fairly well as a piece of 80's family entertainment.

    And it's really surprising to see the similarity to Up - the first and last shots of an old building trapped between highrises are key. And Cronyn's character is even pressured by the developers to enter a senior/assisted living center. Just that instead of balloons carrying away his house, these little WALL-E-like robot aliens come.

  5. Just watched this wonderful movie with my grandchildren and my son and my daughter-in-law – all three generations loved it! There certainly the element of nostalgia for both my son and myself, but seeing the reactions of my grandchildren – it’s just a wonderful film!

    1. Great to hear it's still delighting after 30 yrs!


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