*Batteries Not Included (1987)
Dir. by Matthew Robbins
Starring Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Frank McRae and Elizabeth Pena
A crumbling New York City apartment building with only five residents is the lone holdout preventing the construction of a new commercial center. Desperate to tear the building down, a corrupt executive hires a local gang member to terrorize the residents into leaving. Meanwhile, a family of small alien robot creatures has decided to make the building their new home.
I don’t recall whether we had this on VHS, or if it’s something that we rented frequently – or even if it was just something that I watched on the Disney Channel. But I watched it often enough as a kid that I had pretty strong memories of particular scenes. I’m virtually positive that I haven’t seen it since the 1990s, though.
This movie is way more depressing than I remember it being. My memories of it only really include the happy or funny bits: the scene where the “Fix-its” help to cook food in the diner, the “sex” scene between the two robots, the restored building at the end. They didn’t include all of the fairly dark and disturbing scenes in between.
For the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, it’s actually a drama about mental illness and gentrification. Jessica Tandy heartbreakingly plays an elderly resident of the building with some form of dementia, who continually confuses Carlos, the gang member who’s harassing her fellow residents, with her deceased teenage son. While she constant maintains a cheerful attitude, the same can’t be said for the remaining occupants: her husband who’s afraid that she’ll deteriorate even more rapidly if they move, a struggling artist who breaks up with his girlfriend, a pregnant single woman whose boyfriend is never there, and an ex-boxer who spends all of his time repairing the tiling in a building that’s about to be bulldozed anyway. It’s certainly a warm and fuzzy way to start a family sci-fi film, isn’t it?
Things do pick up once the aliens finally arrive, however. While the effects are showing their age a lot now (obvious matte lines are obvious), they were state of the art for the 80s, and the model and design work is still superb in my opinion. Each of the Fix-Its is visually distinct, and has its own personality, and I like the touch that the three offspring Fix-Its have parts that are clearly scavenged from the things that the parents found in the building. I found myself enjoying the movie a lot more once they’d finally shown up, though a little of the humor (especially when Carlos gets dragged into the rooftop shack they’ve taken over and emerges with a cartoon “electrocuted” look) was more over-the-top than I would have preferred.
While I didn’t know it while I was watching the movie, it makes sense in retrospect to learn that *Batteries Not Included was the first screenplay written by Brad Bird. It’s got the same mix of humor, pathos, maturity and robots that made The Iron Giant such a cult classic a decade later. The mix isn’t quite right here, but he’d definitely perfect it over time.
This review is a little shorter than some of my others, because it’s now been almost a month since I watched the movie. The original version of the review was only half-finished when I lost the flash drive that it was on (in an unfortunate laundry accident), and other delays have prevented me from getting it re-written in a timely manner. Fortunately, I’ve still got a bit of a buffer, so there wasn’t any break in the posting.
Though I have some misgivings about the way that Tandy’s character’s mental illness is used as a source of humor, the part itself is very well-acted, and the chemistry between her and Hume Cronyn (her real-life husband) comes through in every scene. While I did enjoy the rewatch overall, I’m not sure if I’d really recommend it to anyone who didn’t have any nostalgia for it.
-The setup for the movie is almost exactly the same as the house in Up. I’m not sure where they managed to find one building surrounded by empty lots like that, but it’s definitely a real location and not a backlot.
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