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80 thoughts I had watching *batteries not included

Contributed by
Dec 18, 2017

Deep in my dark heart, I harbor vague but warm memories of 1987's *batteries not included, a family-friendly flick about itty-bitty robot aliens. Is that what they were? I remember they invaded an apartment building -- but in a fun way! -- and united its residents through their adorable antics. I watched this movie on a loop until the VHS broke from wear. You'd think I'd retain more than the image of a tiny two-legged spaceship getting a slab of American cheese slapped on it as if it were a juicy burger.

Well, with *batteries not included celebrating its 30th anniversary, this child of the '80s is revisiting the sweet sci-fi romp to see if it holds up! Let's Deja View!

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  1. A jazzy opening montage of sepia-toned photographs suggests our setting was a once-happening neighborhood. But these give way to wonky horns and pictures of dilapidated brick buildings, and urban ruins on the Lower East Side of New York. As the last still comes to life in color and motion, it is a construction site with ominous music playing like somebody's about to gun down Bambi's mom. It's like the beginning of Pixar's Up! but bleaker.
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  2. Wait. This screenplay was co-written by Brad Bird? Like director of The Incredibles Brad Bird? (Googles) Yup! This was his first screenplay credit, ahead of The Iron GiantOh man, now I'm sad, remembering the end of Iron Giant.
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  3. Oh right, Jessica Tandy plays a senile woman name Faye, who keeps forgetting that her mom-and-pop diner is on the edge of literal ruin, and that her son Bobby … I don't quite recall. But I do remember it's upsetting. What have I gotten myself into?
  4. There's a skeezy mustachioed dude hassling a single pregnant woman. Oh right! Carlos is trying to bully/evict/bribe the people in the building to move out. 
  5. Before there were romp-hims, there was whatever you want to call this nonsense. 
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  6. Faye's husband Frank is played by Hume Cronyn, who I remember from Cocoon! Man, the '80s loved putting senior citizens in science fiction.
  7. Whoa. Cronyn was a babe in his day.
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  8. The evil greedy suit is played by John Pankow! Remember John Pankow? He was Ira on Mad About You.
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  9. Huh. This is a kids' movie about gentrification. They never use that word. But the people who live in this building are being pushed out so that a bigger, nicer, more expensive one can take its place. A building where they won't be able to afford to live. But don't worry, a bearded hipster painter bro is trying to save it to preserve its "reality." Reality inspires Mason Baylor.
  10. "It's the '80s, Mason, nobody likes reality anymore." No one likes it now either, outraged ex-girlfriend. 
  11. "You got to be the Andrew Wyeth of the East Village." You know, for kids!? You know how kids love the work of realist painter Andrew Wyeth? I mean who among us did not have Christina's World hanging in our play rooms?
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  12. Fun Fact: Cronyn and Tandy were married IRL too.
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  13. "Let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie." The look Frank gives her as Faye flits about having no idea how much trouble they're in. He's all alone in his pain. I'm not crying. It's just really dusty in here, and where are these cute alien robots anyway!?
  14. "Please. Somebody. Help. Us." And just like that they arrive, 23 minutes in. 
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  15. So are these little spaceships with littler aliens inside? Or are they themselves robot-aliens? It's the latter, right? It seems they have eyes, and fashion sense. That's enough to pass the Turing test, right? (Full Disclosure: I am not a scientist.)
  16. Mason is so tortured, he pitched all his paintings out the window in a fit of sad passion. He is so struggling he sleeps on a cot on the floor. Mason is every "edgy" hipster you met at a bar who made a sexist joke, then claimed he was being "ironic."
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  17. "They're the fixers. They like to fix things." The "little guys" can fix wood paneling, shattered glass, and broken watches. I would very much like to understand the movie science of this please. (Reminder: I am not a scientist.) 
  18. While the humans slept, these probably extraterrestrial visitors renovated Frank and Faye's restaraunt. Maybe these alien robots are interstellar property flippers?
  19. I am very confused how they fly. If they have boosters, how would they work inside a breadbox? 
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  20. Carlos has a new snazzy outfit. But his tracksuits are no match for the little guys. 
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  21. Mason is convinced these things are "made in the USA." Frank chides, "The quickest way to end a miracle is to ask it why it is, or what it wants." Yeah. OBVIOUSLY, these are robot angels. So STFU, Mason.
  22. At this point, we know they steal stuff to modify themselves. They can electrocute people, and they will slap a dude for getting too close.
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  23. "Frank has a terrible temper, you know," Faye tells us. I'm 90% sure Bobby is dead. But it's like WAY too dark even for this movie about dementia and eviction and gentrification to reveal that Frank like accidentally killed Bobby, right? RIGHT?!
  24. "What are they doing?" "Can't you tell?" How is Faye so worldly about robot angel mating dances?
  25. Aww. Harry. I forgot about Harry. A big burly Black man who is very gentle. Used to be a boxer, but he's punch-drunk, and doesn't speak much anymore. But he 's handy though! He offers a big string of holiday lights as a means of feeding electricity to the expectant robot angel mom. Good on ya, big man! 
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  26. Carlos is hiding out in a dilapidated building, stewing over a plan. He's young, scrappy and hungry. He vaguely reminds me of someone ...
  27. Jessica Tandy: STYLE ICON. 
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  28. Also the robot angels eat metal -- like soda cans -- for food? Or for scrap to build their baby? How do robot angel babies work? I could probably google this, but there are some rabbit holes you can't come back from.
  29. The pregnant woman, Marisa, does not know when she's due. But don't worry, because Mason is interested in her. And CLEARLY he has his life all figured out. He wants to make her "a very artistic cup of coffee." Please no.
  30. The momma robot angel is literally blowing a fuse during birth. Good thing there are menfolk around to fix things.
  31. "Machines that reproduce themselves! Spare parts with intelligence! Living hardware!" Stop talking, Mason. You think you're being cool or smart or who knows what. But the more you talk the more I'm reminded of that douchey yuppie from Die Hard. You know, the one who calls Hans Gruber "bubby"? Do you remember what became of him, Mason? 
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  32. The third robot angel baby comes out stillborn. And that's when they say the title: "Batteries not included." For the record: This movie is named for a miscarriage scene. More to the point, this kids' movie is named for a miscarriage scene.
  33. Eugh. Mason wants to dissect the dead baby bot, because obviously he knows EVERYTHING about science and dissection and baby robot angel procedure.
  34. "Let's talk about this. You don't have to say anything, I'll do all the talking." We KNOW, Mason. We know.
  35. IT'S THE PART WITH THE BURGER. Huh. These effects do not hold up. 
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  36. Frank puts mayonnaise on his burgers? Call the police. Shut it down. 
  37. Faye named the baby bots "Flotsam and Jetsam." Why. What. Why.
  38. Faye thinks Carlos is Bobby. But Carlos is more a bastard, orphan, son of a whore. "I'm smart. I'm talented. I get ideas all the time." Carlos is not throwing away his shot.
  39. She's given him tomato soup and crackers! I CAN.NOT. Deal.
  40. Just in case you ever need to bring a robot baby angel back from the dead -- water plus electricity does wonders. 
  41. Mason bought milk and whole wheat bread, plus a baby book and pickled peppers. Because mansplaining pregnancy is just what Marisa needs.
  42. Carlos has made it to the room where it happens!? "It" being shady real estate deals plotted by stern rich white men. 
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  43. Can we get some love for this suit? 
  44. "I see a mysterious counterplay of light and dark." Mason paints with a ballcap on. Of course he does.
  45. Okay. So Mason barged into Marisa's apartment unannounced. He pushed his way into her pregnancy plan. And after she's rebuilt his fragile ego, he offers to paint her. But even though she poses fully clothed, he's "imagined" her with her tits out. Boundaries are for the un-artistic, and bare breasts in paintings are totally PG. 
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  46. Even this janky portrait is giving him side-eye over this. 
  47. Her boyfriend has actually come back! The bae is saved!
  48. As she fled his place in the opening, Mason's girlfriend yelled at him that he never even asked her to pose nude. Is painting Marisa nude -- without her consent -- meant to be character growth!? 
  49. This movie is BARELY about the robot angels. Like maybe they've had 10 minutes of screentime and I'm 70 minutes in. This is mostly sad dementia drama, shady business dealings, and Mason never shutting up.
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  50. The runt of the littler is resurrected and reunited. It feels okay.
  51. Angry drunk Mason is literally squawking at his lovely neighbors because he got cockblocked. Next, he's breaking into Marisa's apartment and stealing stuff. Men are so out of control with their emotions. 
  52. UGH. Marisa's bady-daddy is gone again, and she turns to Mason: "You need somebody to draw, right?" Girl. You can do better. Like at least Carlos has dreams, and not just angst.
  53. Carlos is trashing the place with an ax. Nevermind. Harry seems nice? Or you know, None of the Above is also an option.
  54. You know, in the right angle, Carlos looks a little like Raul Julia as Gomez Adams. And I'm not mad at it. 
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  55. "I'll take door number one." It's funny because Harry is brain-damaged and can only repeat catchphrases from TV. Wait. That's not funny, that's a bummer
  56. Seeing Carlos get beat, Faye has a meltdown and starts screaming about Bobby. Oh. Oh damn. She blames Frank for Bobby's death. She doesn't even remember Bobby is dead, but she bellows, "You wish Bobby was dead," and "Why do you think he bought that car? To get away from you! We're going to lose him, and it's all your fault."
  57. Bobby totally died in that car, didn't he?
  58. I could really use some cute robot angel antics right about now. But they're MIA. 
  59. Harry has decided the way to find the wayward angel robots is to steal things. I mean, really, that seems to be the answer to all of life's problems. 
  60. A sketchy white man in a suit has arrived to set up a bomb in the building's basement. Faye is home alone because everyone else is out searching for the missing robot angels. 
  61. Street cleaners are baby robot angels' only known predators. 
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  62. Daddy robot angel is healed, but MAD. So Harry tries to kidnap the runt. What even is this movie?
  63. Carlos discovers the sketchy guy, and here's where I thought he'd have a change of heart. Like chasing people out of their affordable housing is one thing. But burning their home and all their things to the ground? That's too awful right? Nope. Carlos is just mad this might mean he doesn't get his money. Carlos, say no to this.
  64. Here's the turn: Faye is at risk. Come on Carlos, this story has its eyes on you! 
  65. To his credit, Carlos tried to utilize Faye's dementia to lure her out of the house gently. But when she "wakes up" and realizes he's not Bobby, she fights him off.
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  66. Oh, Bobby. Yup. He died in the car he bought to get away with from his dad. So, Frank is sort of responsible for the death of his son, and his wife -- even lost in dementia -- resents him for it. I miss being a kid who couldn't grasp all this deep darkness. 
  67. Carlos broke the door down and dragged Faye out. Remember, kids, when tenderness fails, force is always the way. *batteries not included: full of dubious life lessons.
  68. The place is in a full-on blaze. All of their possessions, mementos, everything is gone. Kids' movie!
  69. Despite all this carnage, this movie is weirdly boring. So I'm googling what became of these actors. Oh! THAT's why I know Marisa's voice. Brad Bird picked her to be the voice of Mirage in The Incredibles 17 years later!
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  70. The runt returns to the building in ruins, and starts laying teeny tiny tiles in what remains of the hallway. 
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  71. And then, in come the cavalry! The sky fills with robot angels to the rescue!
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  72. Guys. Carlos wore his nicest Hawaiian combo and combed his hair and brought flowers to Faye. When you smile, you knock me out I fall apart and I thought I was so smart …
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  73. Faye is crying, because he's not her Bobby. It's quiet uptown.
  74. Everyone returns to the building, which is rebuilt, better than ever. Evil Ira is very confused, then fired. Carlos is battered and befuddled.
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  75. Hey look! It's a young Luis Guzmán. Seriously, it is. 
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  76. The credits go up on this image: their tiny apartment building standing between two massive skyscrapers.
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  77. The jaunty music suggests it's a win. This isn't a win. Let's assume they have rent-controlled apartments and can't be kicked out. Their quiet neighborhood is now at the heart of a bustling business district. That's maybe good news for Frank's restaurant, which can play host to hordes of office workers. But that gritty reality Mason was looking for gone!? Actually. I take it back. Mason getting fed up and moving out would be good news, for the sound level, the pretension level, and for Marisa. Maybe she can get a job in one of the skyscrapers that flank the place? Or help out Frank with Faye and the diner? As long as Mason vanishes, we're good there. 
  78. But what about Carlos!? The film spent about 40% of its time constructing his redemption arc, and then the last shot is enigmatic at best.
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  79. It's safe to assume he did not get the big payout for booting them out of the building. His gang has disappeared, and he has dreams of leaving the neighborhood but no way out. I mean, I would have accepted a shot inside the café revealing he's working with Frank and Faye as a fry cook. I'd even accept a final shot that answers no questions, but at least he shaved off that skeevy mustache! What kind of ending is this!? I can't even get a proper payoff to my Hamilton runner! 
  80. The credits are rolling, and I'm realizing some things are best left in the past. *batteries not included and its quirky tale of gentrification, mansplaining painters, ruthless dreamers, and grieving, dementia-afflicted parents is definitely among them.