*** (A must-see)

Directed by Matthew Robbins

Written by Robbins, Brad Bird, Brent Maddock, and S.S. Wilson

With Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Michael Carmine.

Batteries Not Included is either the most ingenuous or the most subversive film of the year, and I’m not sure there’s a way of figuring out which. Dressed up as it is in the off-the-rack, gizmo-laden plot associated with its executive producers (Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall), the film is designed to resist any intervention by its director, Matthew Robbins. The envelope of creaking deus ex machina falsity, however, contains within it a corrosive portrait of middle-American selfishness and greed, exclusion and racism.

The formula associated with any Spielberg production is well known. Nascent in Jaws, the structure emerged full-blown in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and has remained absolutely rigid ever since: a threatened family group–whether literal or figurative–is brought back together by a miraculous outside force. Close Encounters gave the formula some universality–it was the human family that was threatened–but since then the dramas have shrunk to include only a few people, almost always members of the white middle class (and when they’re not white, they are always carefully given white-middle-class virtues).

While some of Spielberg’s proxy directors have used the formula cleverly (Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future) or have even subverted it (Joe Dante in Gremlins), mostly the films emerge with a cookie-cutter uniformity (Innerspace, Young Sherlock Holmes, Harry and the Hendersons). Spielberg himself is the most rigid interpreter, and ironically his recent self-conscious attempts to shake off the formula (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) have shown an even greater enslavement to it. In both those films Spielberg used the cheapest way to intellectual respectability–adapting a classy best-seller–and both are shorn of all possible ambiguities, reducing everything to a support for his shallow family reunions.

At first glance, Batteries Not Included appears to fall easily into this pattern. The inhabitants of an old apartment house in New York City are threatened with eviction by a powerful and unprincipled real estate developer. All hope seems lost until a pair of tiny spaceships appear, which have the magical power to restore any kind of object to its original, pristine state. Together the building tenants and the spacecraft are able to fight off the evil landlord and restore familial harmony.

The closer you look at the details, however, the less simpleminded, and the more critical, the film appears. For one thing, though the tenants are not wealthy, they’re not exactly poor either–Robbins seems to make them middle-class in a rather subversive, ostentatious way. The story centers on two of them: Frank and Faye Riley (played by those happily married hams, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy), who not only live in the building but run the coffee shop on the ground floor. The opening credits–shots of Frank and Faye in a bustling old-time New York–make it clear that these are not poor people but hardworking members of the petite bourgeoisie suffering under straitened circumstances. They haven’t changed; their neighborhood has.

Likewise, the other two holdouts don’t quite meet our expectations. One is a pregnant Puerto Rican woman, Marisa (Elizabeth Pena), the kind of character who, at first glance, fills perfectly the cliched poor person’s role. But the specifics of her financial condition are carefully excluded. We only know that she lives alone (her boyfriend, a musician, is always on the road), keeps a neat apartment, and is very pregnant. She’s so sketchily drawn that her pregnancy is her only distinguishing characteristic; Marisa is a symbol of motherhood, but middle-class motherhood, which requires a woman only to stay at home and keep house without worrying about money.

The last paying tenant is clearly in the building by whim. Mason (Dennis Boutsikaris) is a frustrated painter who can’t sell his work. Notwithstanding the artistic and professional obstacles he faces, Mason unaccountably has no other job to support himself and dresses fashionably. (Given all these faintly unpleasant qualities, it is a bit surprising to see that Mason bears a passing physical resemblance to Spielberg.)

These four obviously form the constituent elements of an inchoate family. Frank and Faye are unhappy not only because they’re about to lose their property but because their son Bobby is gone and Faye’s mind is coming unhinged as a result. Marisa needs a father for her baby, and Mason needs someone to appreciate him. It’s clear right from the start that the film’s ultimate goal is to get them all together.

A fifth inhabitant of the building further undermines the typical pattern. Harry (Frank McRae), the janitor, is a cellar-dwelling ex-fighter who almost never speaks except to utter a line from a commercial he’s seen on his constantly playing television. Harry is an exotic, yet one who lives to serve. Frank even says at one point, “I used to bet on him all the time,” a line that seems intended to underline how the others exploit him. Robbins frequently shoots Harry as a fuzzy figure in the background, one who emerges only to perform a service; yet this seems not so much the director’s disinterest as a graphic indication of the principal quartet’s exploitive tendencies.

This suggestive treatment of the poor (and, by extension, nonwhites) emerges even more strongly in the movie’s villain–or, to be more accurate, his surrogate. For although the danger posed to the tenants originates with the developer, he and his henchmen are kept in the background. Their threat is personified instead by Carlos (Michael Carmine), a poor Puerto Rican youth who supplies the muscle to back up the landlord’s threats. He’s dangerous looking all right, but oddly enough he never threatens people, just property. One of his first acts is to go through Frank’s diner with a bat, smashing and destroying.

That scene of destruction is one of the film’s key moments. Frank’s is no ordinary coffee shop. It’s like a museum, full of furnishings–a classic Wurlitzer jukebox and drink mixers–now sold as antiques at astronomical prices. Robbins allows his camera to caress these valuable objects just before Carlos takes his bat to them, almost as if to animate them and make their destruction all the more criminal.

There’s a metaphorical level to the action: As far as the middle class is concerned–and, particularly, the disenfranchised middle class of New York–it’s the poor that destroy property values, merely by showing up. And it’s the poor that allow the very rich to come in and finish off the job by buying up property and razing it.

If that were all there was to the film, it would just be a more realistic than usual fantasy. But the air of critical reproach arises from Robbins’s treatment of the most worn-out of his generic requirements: the hero from outer space. These are among the weirder heroes to appear on the movie screen: tiny spaceships with no crew, they appear to be animated machines, gizmos with souls. Robbins allows these things, with their vague origins, to develop a rich ambiguity. In fact, soon after they show up, they go around collecting toasters, screws, and other mechanical junk and use the stuff to procreate. These “heroes” are literally the property of the besieged middle class coming to life in order to save it. Whenever Carlos or his henchmen destroy something, the machines fix it. When Carlos is supplanted by a greater menace–an arsonist–it doesn’t matter. The coffeepots and radios that the middle class has coveted and fussed over will band together to protect the world they were originally purchased to construct.

Having established this ultimate, farcical commoditization of heroism, Robbins turns his attention to Carlos. As the film goes on Carlos begins to appear less and less threatening, until Robbins finally reveals him as a victim. During dialogues with Faye–who persists in mistaking Carlos for her long-gone son–and in confrontations with his rich bosses, Carlos lets on that villainy is the only way he has out of poverty, that the people who are using him are the only ones who ever thought to teach him anything.

And Carlos is the only character in the movie who actually risks his life to save another. After the arsonist (a middle-aged man in a suit who drives a station wagon–yet another middle-class caricature) sets fire to the building, Carlos runs into it to rescue Faye. Yet he never receives any credit for his heroism, and in fact when he shows up to console Frank and Faye at the hospital in an effort to assume some respectability, he’s abruptly and cruelly rejected.

There’s no room for Carlos in the film’s “happy” ending, and his sudden departure from the end–so striking as to seem more than a mere convenience–adds to the biting irony. In the end, the only person who suffers is Carlos. All the other parties come to a mutual accommodation, but Carlos has had nothing to barter.

There seems too much of a structural design here for inadvertency. Although the picture is dominated by a dreamy wistfulness, and any given scene is dominated by the special effects of the spaceships whooshing around, the note of criticism is persistent. Indeed, the film’s final image, in one sense a triumph of happiness, is also a perfect criticism of materialism, an image of property looming over the human landscape, dominating and controlling it. And within that ugly image, the symbol for the enlightened middle class is one of submission and collaboration. Matthew Robbins just may have made the most effective Marxist film of the year.