These days Steven Spielberg is garnering justified praise for having moved past mechanical sharks and aliens with Empire of the Sun. It’s very gratifying to see Spielberg at work in the adult arena, especially for those of us who have been his supporters all along.
Now Spielberg’s production company gives us *batteries not included. It’s about these people in a New York tenement who are trying to save their building and are helped by, uh, er, these – well, aliens.
Spielberg did not direct this film, although his name is prominently displayed in the credits. Matthew Robbins, who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s first theatrical film (The Sugarland Express) directed, and to him goes the lion’s share of the blame. We can only hope that Spielberg was so busy with Empire that he never saw the rushes of this one.
*batteries not included has the worst of everything: condescendingly adorable old people, relentlessly cute spaceships, grossly oily villains. Worse, it can barely tell a story coherently.
That leaves the special effects, executed by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic people. They’re quite seamless, but with a movie this bad who cares about technical proficiency?
Despite the presence of theatrical heavyweights Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as the keepers of the flame in the old building, the actors make almost no impression at all. Elizabeth Pena (La Bamba) has a sleepy beauty, but her role is nonexistent. Michael Carmine fumes a lot, as the thug who bashes things up in an effort to get the tenants to move out.
Frank McRae plays a washedup ex-boxer with a tender side (this film doesn’t miss a cliché) who tinkers with toys and speaks exclusively in lines he has learned from TV commercials. The two spaceships fly about, doing sweet things for these poor tenants. Then they begin cannibalizing hardware – coffee pots, Pepsi cans – in a process that turns out to be procreative. This, of course, means that the spaceships will give birth to little spaceships even sweeter and more huggable (not to mention merchandisable) than themselves. Which prompts the operative response to these baby ships and the film as a whole: Yuck.
First published in The Herald, December 1987
So, not a good impression with me. I did like Robbins’ Dragonslayer, so this was a letdown. Everybody was tracking the growing-up of Steven Spielberg at this time, all but demanding that he put away childish things, so that explains my lede. The screenplay features a battery of names, including story credit to Mick Garris and co-writing credit to Brad Bird, both of whom had worked on Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and would go on to bigger things; screenplay credit also goes to Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, who did Short Circuit and Tremors.