Unevenly Distributed: What Gremlins Says About The 80s And Its Tech

Even before the viewer catches a glimpse his first Mogwai, Joe Dante’s Gremlins establishes the link between the titular goblins and malfunctioning technology by way of Randy Peltzer and his many incompetent inventions.

Wonderfully played by Hoyt Axton, Peltzer is a bumbling inventor whose gizmos impressively balance both a grandiosity of purpose and an utter ineptitude of execution. For most people, Peltzer’s most memorable invention in the film is the Bathroom Buddy, a sort of Swiss Army gadget for road warriors consolidating an electric toothbrush, razor, nail clippers, scissors, nose hair clippers, shaving cream, shampoo, conditioner and soap into one awesomely unwieldy device as streamlined and dextrous as a two-pound block of cheese. The Bathroom Buddy is meant to replace everything in your average road warrior’s toiletries kit, but no matter how many gas stations or dubious, opium-filled Chinatown “curiosity” shops he visits, Peltzer can never manage to sell one…. mostly because every time he demonstrates the Buddy’s functionality, it immediately (and hilariously) malfunctions on him.

It’s the Bathroom Buddy that I would like us to consider today. But first, let’s talk about Gremlins.

How our feelings about technology have changed since 1984! While a classic when judged by many merits, there’s much to find fascinating when re-watching Gremlins as a gadget lover twenty five years after the fact. This is a film that is deeply distrustful of gadgets and machines… as it must be.

According to lore, gremlins aren’t so much murderous, rampaging monsters as they are creatures responsible for sabotaging technology, often to fatal effect. As such, Gremlins is a movie filled with completely out-of-control technology: smokeless ashtrays that constantly catch fire, electric juicers that volcanically explode pulpy magma all over the kitchen whenever an orange is inserted, whiplash-inducing wheelchair lifts, cars that constantly break down, unmanned killer bulldozers that come crashing through living room walls. That a gremlin is almost never shown directly hurting anyone (but only sabotaging to fatal effect the technology the characters in the film use) is one of the many ways the film’s script is so smart about both its premise and choice of monster.

It’s an easy thing to miss as a kid, but it’s no fluke that the film opens with Randy Peltzer, the incompetent inventor, discovering a real-life gremlin (he would, wouldn’t he?) and it’s even more pertinent that the film’s protagonist is Billy Peltzer, Randy’s son, who has already spent his entire life troubleshooting his father’s out-of-control gadgets. Gremlins is a film that’s really all about our relationship with technology, but it’s so perfectly of its time that it would be almost impossible to remake today without abandoning the technological angle entirely. Gremlins, after all, was made in 1984, when bulky, expensive and prone-to-malfunction electronics were just starting to really make their way into homes. What’s so hysterical about Peltzer’s inventions is just how similar they all are to the kinds of gadgets you’d find on the shelves of the local Sharper Image back in the early and mid-80s.1

The distrust the film has for new technology was a distrust shared by an entire generation of Americans, who were simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the way foreign-made electronics were consolidating and replacing the analog and more easily understood gadgets they’d used for years. The fact that Gizmo is purchased from a Chinatown shop is Reagan-era gadget commentary in itself: Peltzer is basically struck with consumer lust for a bright, shiny new thing that replaces a household staple (in this case, the family dog) but will only function properly if you follow an elaborate, haphazardly translated and logically nonsensical instruction manual. Could there be a more perfect metaphor for the way many Americans in 1984 felt about their VCRs?

In a film like this, the humor in a gadget like the Bathroom Buddy doesn’t just lie in the ineptitude of its inventor, or even in the fact that the device constantly malfunctions. It’s that the Bathroom Buddy consolidates into one befuddling, overly complicated electronic device a number of simpler analog tools which, on their own, perform their respective functions with far more efficiency. Of course the Bathroom Buddy always malfunctions, because in Gremlins, only the simplest technology can be trusted not just to work reliably, but to abstain from bugging right the fuck out and killing you.

It’s Gremlins‘ attitude towards tech that would make the film so hard to remake today. For one thing, we’re just not as distrustful of our gadget hardware in the same way that we were back in the 80s. No one’s really afraid of their gadgets exploding or catching on fire or going on a rampage anymore; we’re just afraid of them breaking and being out the money to replace them. Likewise, our tech insecurity lies mostly in finding the software of our gadgets confusing or hard to use, and consumerist xenophobia when it comes to consumer electronics has all but disappeared.

If they loyally remade Gremlins then, much of the cleverness of the original film’s plot would immediately be orphaned. The film’s opening Chinatown set piece would be merely atmospheric instead of pointedly xenophobic, while the tongue-in-cheek satire of Gizmo’s hopelessly convoluted “instruction manual” would lose all of its bite.

But it’s the Bathroom Buddy that would change the most, because in 2011 the closest analog the Bathroom Buddy is the smartphone in your pocket. Like the Bathroom Buddy, your smartphone consolidates a host of simpler devices into a single super gadget, and just think about how ridiculous that supergadget would look to someone from 1984. “So you want to sell me a gizmo that’s a phone, a flash light, a calendar, a mailbox, a Walkman, a remote control, a television and a calculator… all at the same time? With optional extensions called ‘apps’ that can be added on at any time to do more besides? Pull the other one why dontcha.”

It’s a testament to how far tech has come along that the Bathroom Buddy no longer seems quite as absurd as it once did, but even at the time, the Bathroom Buddy’s silliness wasn’t so much in being an all-in-one personal grooming accessory as it was in consolidating an entire bathroom kit without any consideration for the things it would be best to leave out (namely, the things that were most likely to go wrong). A combination toothbrush and razor isn’t necessarily a bad idea; but when it spurts toothpaste from one nozzle and shaving cream from another, you’re just asking for a mix-up.

And that’s just the thing. A guy like Randy Peltzer wouldn’t be inventing stupid, ill-thought home electronics in 2011. The idea of a home inventor is just anachronistic now, because we live in the age of Swiss Army software, where there’s always an “app for that,” no matter how stupid. It’s a time of garage programming, not inventing. And that’s just the thing: once you think of the Bathroom Buddy as a smartphone, the jig’s up for a Gremlins remake. The way we think about tech has just changed too much. In the last twenty five years, we’ve gone from being both wryly amused and distrustful of overly ambitious hardware to feeling that way about software, which just isn’t as funny or scary. There might be an interesting script out there about murderous goblins hacking iPhones in Objective C, but Hoyt Axton would turbine in his grave if some producer slapped the Gremlins license on top of it.

1 — One of the many ways that Gremlins 2: The New Batch misses the point of the first film is in Randy Peltzer’s sole mention as the inventor of “reversible toilet paper.”

* * * * *

Unevenly Distributed is a weekly column written by John Brownlee fusing the week’s most interesting tech stories with history, context, weirdness, humor and vision towards the future. You can drop John a note by writing to john AT gearfuse DOT com.

One comment

  1. Was just watching gremlins this christmas, and thought aloud, “wow! this movie really has a lot of commentary about technology – and xenophobias related to technology– wonder if someone’s deconstructed it online?”… and here you are! Great read. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *