Science fiction for kids (Short Circuit 2, *Batteries Not Included, Flight Of The Navigator)

Science fiction for kids (Short Circuit 2, *Batteries Not Included, Flight Of The Navigator)

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

George Lucas still had massive reserves of goodwill to burn in the fallout from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and he went about doing so in a spectacular manner in a July 1999 interview with the BBC. Under fire for juvenile slapstick in the form of Jar-Jar Binks, the director fired back with an argument more powerful than he could possibly imagine: “These movies are for children but [the fans] don’t want to admit that.”

Considering that Lucas was being simultaneously harangued for sullying the childhood memories of an entire generation, this deflection seems off-point. But it also reinforces an unfortunate misperception about science fiction: Namely, that the genre is strictly kids’ stuff. Lucas came up during an era when movie serials, comic books, and pulp novels cemented this notion, but he was also a member of the filmmaking generation that tore it down. The original Star Wars trilogy was a financial smash, and while much of that was driven by younger audience members lusting after various plastic representations of Luke Skywalker, a movie franchise goes nowhere if its entire audience isn’t old enough to drive.

That said, many post-Star Wars sci-fi did seek to appeal to children first, ranging from derivative works (the Roger Corman-produced cheapie Battle Beyond The Stars; Disney’s The Black Hole) to films that managed to put their own spin on the adventurous spirit and technical innovations of Lucas’ blockbuster. More often than not, the films in that latter category brought the action down from the stars and into the suburbs, repositioning cul-de-sacs and subdivisions as locations with as much potential for fantastical stories as a distant galaxy or the not-too-distant future.

If Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind started this trend, his E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial perfected it. I was born three years after E.T.’s original theatrical run, but some of my earliest experiences with sci-fi involved encountering E.T.’s increasingly cuddly successors on home video. The mid-to-late ’80s were a great time to be young and fascinated with aliens and robots, as not only were these characters constantly beamed into familiar territories, but they often did so under the guidance of visionaries like Lucas and Spielberg. The negative reaction to The Phantom Menace wasn’t triggered by fond remembrance alone—the kids raised on Star Wars and E.T. had firm enough grounding in quality sci-fi to discern the classics from the epic duds.

Of course, it’s a slippery slope from E.T. to the Ewoks to Jar Jar Binks. Between Return Of The Jedi’s fuzzy insurgents and The Phantom Menace’s vaguely racist court jester, we run into Johnny 5, the wisecracking piece of renegade technology at the center of the Short Circuit series. Johnny 5 was originally conceived as an instrument of death, but he’s only one lightning strike away from catchphrase-spouting self-awareness. By the time he meets up with unlikely business partners Michael McKean and Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2, he’s removed his back-mounted laser, strapped a kicky red bandana ’round his neck, and brushed up on the intricacies of commercial air travel.

Short Circuit 2—a resolutely terrible movie that I preferred to its marginally better predecessor because it lacks the startling scenes of Johnny 5’s pre-sentience destructiveness—benefits greatly from the bright hues of nostalgia. In a cynical move clearly born of calculating, merchandise-driven logic, the film opens with a scene of Stevens—a white actor playing an Indian in a performance has only grown more offensive over time—hawking miniature versions of Johnny 5 on a New York street corner. It’s either a genius bit of commentary on the business of making movies or an unsubtle acknowledgment that the sequel is just here for your parents’ money, kids. To lean on another Lucas-derived quote, it marks the film as a jumped-up firework display of a toy commercial. Revisiting the movie for this column, I wanted to reach back to my past self and ask “Don’t you know what’s going on here?” Not that it would’ve registered—that kid would be too busy watching and re-watching the sequence where an “input”-hungry Johnny 5 wheels past two punks straight out of central casting and describes them as “human porcupines.”

I had a bit of a jarring revelation during this go-round with Short Circuit 2: I don’t think I’d ever truly watched what I once considered one of my favorite movies. Entire sections of the film were missing from my mind. Did you know that a significant amount of Short Circuit 2 revolves around a diamond heist? I sure didn’t. Or that there’s a painfully unfunny scene where Johnny 5 plays mechanical Cyrano de Bergerac to Stevens’ love-struck scientist? You know why so much of the nostalgic material that’s bandied around the Internet is removed from its original context? Because those seeking its comforts don’t want confront the fact that, say, Johnny 5 was kind of annoying. Yes, he’s a cool-looking robot with a kick-ass hang-glider in his back. But he’s also a figure of boundless naïveté whom Short Circuit 2 sees as a vessel for California Raisins references, rather than a Trojan horse used to slip existential quandaries into a family-friendly blockbuster—which, 23 years and one adolescence later, seems like a better, more satisfying use of the character.

Not all the robots of that era were chatty as Johnny 5, thankfully. After writing Short Circuit 2, screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock tried their hand at writing for a family of much smaller, completely mute machines. Originally conceived as an episode of the Spielberg-produced anthology series Amazing Stories, *Batteries Not Included plops a family of miniature flying saucers in the middle of some heavy-handed commentary on the ever-spinning wheels of progress and the loss of innocence in the post-war United States. The film’s so-called “Fix-Its” save a nearly abandoned apartment building from the wrecking ball, all the while chasing off the developer-backed thugs attempting to scare away the remaining tenants.

*Batteries Not Included is an interesting case: It’s a distinctly Spielbergian film (with Spielberg’s name attached as executive producer) that eschews two Spielbergian aspects: The suburbs and the kids. This made the film incredibly difficult to relate to as a child, as the only reflections of myself I saw in the movie were the three newborn Fix-Its, which account for most of the film’s “aww” factor. The machines were—and remain—a marvel of pre-digital special effects, all whirring parts and blinking lights with nary a pixel in sight. Wilson and Maddock’s struggle to bring the original Amazing Stories story to feature length is evident throughout *Batteries Not Included (they’re among five writers who receive screen credits, along with Amazing Stories regular Mick Garris, director Matthew Robbins, and The Iron Giant’s Brad Bird), but it’s hard to imagine that a made-for-TV version of the Fix-Its would look as fully realized—or provide such enticing visual fodder for an episode of Muppet Babies.

Speaking from my own childhood experience, *Batteries Not Included could’ve used at least four more sequences like the one where the Fix-Its become temporary short-order cooks in Cronyn’s diner. The Fix-Its don’t arrive until the film’s 40-minute mark, and by then there’s been enough about Hume Cronyn’s inability to care for a senile Jessica Tandy and details about pregnant Elizabeth Peña’s baby-daddy issues to induce several fits of juvenile fidgeting. 

But that’s the robot-craving voice of youth speaking; the critical voice of adulthood realizes that the Fix-Its aren’t even necessary to the type of story of *Batteries Not Included tells. They’re the galvanizing force that brings the building’s remaining tenants together, each one a deus ex machina that, in a less fantastical film, would’ve been represented by some sort of bright-eyed idealist (probably played by Short Circuit star Ally Sheedy or her Brat Pack cohort Molly Ringwald) or a street-tough-turned-good, like Michael Carmine’s Carlos. In that way, *Batteries Not Included remains a savvy family film, possessing effects wizardry to dazzle the kids (even if there wasn’t enough of it for my younger self), while giving the adults something to think about in terms of the way society blithely disposes of the old and decrepit. Like the building at its center, that aspect of the film is a bit musty—but it still holds up.

Sometimes you grow out of pop-culture obsessions; sometimes you grow into them. Other times you wonder how you could’ve ever been so stupid as to let something worthy of obsession sail over your head. Such is the case of Flight Of The Navigator, another Spielbergian adventure, this one released by Disney in 1986. Flight Of The Navigator’s time-warped plotting doesn’t exactly hold the viewer’s hand—it’s more Back To The Future Part II than Back To The Future. (The flying vehicle in this case is much cooler, though, and there’s less timeline-crossing.) Here’s the gist: Joey Cramer plays a kid who falls into a ravine behind his parents’ Florida home in 1978. He comes to after what feels like a few hours, but later discovers he’s been missing for eight years—and, mysteriously, he hasn’t aged a day. Could this have anything to do with the strange, silver spacecraft being prodded by Howard Hesseman a few miles away? (Spoiler alert: Absolutely.) The spacecraft is a Trimaxion drone ship from the planet Phaelon, and as it eventually explains to Cramer (in the distorted, pseudonymous voice of Paul Reubens), it abducted the kid and took him on a trip to its home planet that passed quickly at lightspeed—but lasted eight of our Earth years. 

Still with me? Good. To my young mind, the movie told two different, disconnected stories: Kid falls into ravine, then 50 minutes later, he’s flying a spaceship that occasionally sounds like Pee-wee Herman. In between, there’s some stuff at NASA that is straight out of the spooky final third of E.T. With all the technical jargon flung by Hesseman and Reubens, this is as close to hard sci-fi as live-action Disney films get. And that seems to be the throughline with regard to the films of this era that still pass muster in the 2010s: They contained complexities that the kids couldn’t appreciate initially, but were nonetheless able to unpack as time moved forward. There’s thematic and emotional grounding to Cramer’s flight that marks it as more than just a children’s film. In the terror and uncertainty Cramer expresses when learning that his parents thought he was dead, there are the immortal childhood fears of isolation and abandonment. That’s the stuff that lasts much longer than inventive puppetry or an alien intelligence’s first contact with The Beach Boys.

That’s also a sensation that speaks to the entire purpose of Memory Wipe: changes that occur within and without us as we grow older. It may seem to me like Short Circuit 2 went from being an uproarious sci-fi comedy to an unfunny manifestation of cold Hollywood economics—but it’s been trapped in celluloid amber for more than two decades. The film didn’t change; I did. I’m also the one who can now see *Batteries Not Included and Flight Of The Navigator for their merits beyond cute robots and alluring spaceships. And while the latter two films are more kiddie-oriented than any of the entries in the Star Wars saga, the fact that they could inspire such realizations is reason enough to legitimize “just for kids” sci-fi. Because the better, more enduring kiddie sci-fi proves just how juvenile twaddle like The Phantom Menace is.