100 Film Favorites – #88: *batteries not included
(Matthew Robbins, 1987)
This may well be the best movie ever made to have a title beginning with a punctuation mark. Or at least, the best such film to make this Countdown.
*batteries not included was produced by Steven Spielberg, and is probably one of the lesser-known films on which he’s worked. It tells the story of the inhabitants of a run-down New York tenement building, and how their lives are changed by visitors from beyond the stars. The residents include a starving young artist, a single mother-to-be, a former boxer with brain damage, and an elderly married couple (played by real-life husband-and-wife team Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) who run a café at street-level. Because this is an 80s movie, greedy, unscrupulous land developers in suits are chomping at the bit to oust the apartment-dwellers from their homes, bulldoze the building and erect a block of upscale high-rises.
The lead business-villain at first tries to pay the residents to move, but when some still refuse, he hires a gang of local thugs to smash up the café and threaten further violence should the residents remain.
The building’s inhabitants are shaken and unsure what to do next. The next morning, however, they awaken to find all the damage undone. They discover that a pair of what appear to be tiny, sentient spaceships arrived in the night and refurbished the café. The residents bond with these creatures, which the elderly woman dubs “Fix-its,” and, in so doing, bond with each other as well. This new family grows as one of the mechanical creatures turns out to be a literal mothership, giving birth to three baby Fix-its. One of the babies is stillborn, and the former boxer, whose hobby is tinkering with electronics, is able to resuscitate it. The Fix-its make the apartment building their home, and continually repair any damage the developers’ thugs cause.
However, the gang’s leader, an ambitious young man hoping for a big payoff from the developers, is determined to drive the residents away. One night he breaks into the building and, finally discovering the secret behind the self-repairing apartment, cleaves the “father” Fix-it nearly in half with an axe. Distressed, the Fix-its depart the building and return to space. Without their mechanical guardians, the residents face the prospect of having to leave their homes.
Meanwhile, the lead slimy developer guy has grown frustrated with the thugs’ apparent lack of progress, and orders an arsonist to simply burn the building down with the residents inside. Horrified by this turn of events, the gang leader redeems himself by warning the tenants and rescuing the elderly woman from the blaze. The building, however, burns to the ground. That night, the residents seek shelter elsewhere, save for the old boxer, who remains sitting on the front stoop amongst the scorched rubble. As he sits, staring at the stars, the Fix-it family returns, descending from the sky…followed by thousands more of their species. By the next morning, the entire building is restored to the art deco splendor of its original construction. The day is saved and the residents return to their home. The end credits reveal that, while another development firm did eventually construct the block of high-rises, the old apartment building, now an historic landmark, remains nestled between the skyscrapers.
*batteries not included earns a spot on this list for the uniqueness of its central creatures, its impressive visual effects, and the touching (if not entirely original) story. The actors all give memorable performances, with the old couple and the former boxer being standouts (the title, *batteries not included, comes from the addled boxer’s habit of only speaking in soundbites from old commercials).
Though not directed by him, the film bears many distinctly Spielbergian hallmarks. Two of the most prominent:
2. Poor people threatened by encroaching fatcat 80s land developers.
Both of these elements are likely to appear here again before this Countdown is out.
All in all, *batteries not included is a charming sci-fi story , and probably the best film to ever star a family of living spacecraft.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.
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