Keep them away from sunlight. Don’t get them wet. Whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight. The rules that keep the cute, toy-like creatures in GREMLINS from transforming into reptilian pranksters were always meant to be broken. The question is, why?
The way Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller) puts it, it might have something do with their connection to technology. According to Futterman, he can remember gremlins in engines during the war, placed there to bring down American troops. They’re also in foreign TVs and foreign cars. You better watch out, because they might be in your microwave or boombox, too.
It’s an uncomfortably xenophobic look at our creatures, but one that does foreshadow their fascination with innovation. It also suggests that gremlins aren’t just monsters for the sake of being monsters—they’re agents of chaos that thrive in upsetting the established order, whether it be in a small town or in the trapped confines of a cubicle. If it means disrupting the rat race or literally breaking apart devices that represent the pinnacle of human technological advancement, these creatures will do it.
Central to both GREMLINS and GREMLINS II: THE NEW BATCH is the correlation between technology and value, and whether or not continual innovation improves upon our way of life or actually takes something vital away. Is it better to embrace a more modern way of doing things, complete with new inventions that continually strive to simplify everyday life? Or is “new” not really better and just something we think we need because we’re told it has more value?
The clash between innovation and tradition is clear from the very beginning of GREMLINS, where we find inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axon) on the hunt in Chinatown for new buyers of his latest innovation, the Bathroom Buddy, and maybe a Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). He enters a tiny antique shop and quickly works to convince Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), the shopkeeper, of the value of his invention. “You have a lot of interesting artifacts here,” Peltzer remarks, before slipping further into his sales pitch. But as he looks around the store, which he later describes as nothing but a “little junk shop,” he finds something truly extraordinary: a creature like no other, a thing he didn’t know he really wanted but somehow has been searching for everywhere, a Mogwai.
Mr. Wing is reluctant to give the Mogwai to Peltzer, because hey, wouldn’t you be? Peltzer’s a crass American man peddling some useless piece of plastic in a store where so many other untold treasures remain hidden in plain sight. But he is ultimately persuaded by his grandson, who dons a New York Yankees cap and reminds him of how desperately they need the money. He bids farewell to the Mogwai (Peltzer promptly whitewashes over the creature’s identity, renaming him Gizmo) but imparts a warning: follow those three iconic rules or pay the price.
Unfortunately, Peltzer hasn’t bought just any pet—he’s dropped a ticking time bomb into his home. At first, Gizmo acclimates well to the Peltzer house. He sings, and quickly learns to play music with Billy. He also becomes captivated with TV and American pop culture, specifically cinema. As Gizmo soaks up pop culture, he’s able to learn from it by appropriating ideas and imagery, which the other gremlins do as well. Even when they transform into reptile-like troublemakers, the creatures are still drawn to movies, and post up at the local cinema for a showing of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES, which is notable for being the first full-length, animated feature film in color.
In both films, the gremlins use the knowledge gained from their interactions with humans and technology to their advantage in order to terrorize, reproduce and unleash bedlam. They do get a makeover in GREMLINS II thanks to genetically modified foods and cognitive enhancement serums. No matter what GMOs they’re exposed to, the gremlins remain as mischievous and gluttonous as always. The only difference might be that, in creating designer gremlins, GREMLINS II is able to take a self-knowing jab at sequel tropes and the blatant merchandising emphasis that swirls around Gizmo and the gang throughout the film.
If the creatures are an attack on innovation in GREMLINS, they represent a total rebellion against it in GREMLINS II. Instead of Rand Peltzer’s fantastic ideas for a fantastic world, innovation comes in the form of the corporate skyscraper. The skyscraper is a self-contained town that is modern, automated, clean to the point of sterility yet still claustrophobic. It’s an imitation town—an environment where things can thrive, but people probably can’t, and where the rat race rules supreme. Town busybodies like Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) and Mr. Futterman from the original film have been replaced by opportunistic coworkers and a non-corporeal automated system, which knows everything all at once and passes judgment on nameless rat-racers who need to move their cars and clean them because they’re old and dirty. The system can anticipate everything, except the damage that the gremlins are about to do.
It’s an altogether different message from GREMLINS, which draws significant inspiration from Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (so much so that even the towns in question—Kingston Falls and Bedford Falls, respectively—have similar names). Although set in the 1980s, GREMLINS has a distinct Depression-era sentimentality that’s hard to shake. The best example of this here is Billy, who is stuck at a crossroads, and not just because his VW Beetle keeps breaking down on him. Like George Bailey, he’s feeling pressure to succeed in the rat race, which collides with his obligations to his family and love of his Kingston Falls community. He’s an artist, disinterested in his father’s inventions and the yuppie consumerism embraced by his boss (Judge Reinhold) at the bank, but he’s also keenly aware the world is changing.
Billy’s interest in Kate (Phoebe Cates), a local girl who is working to save the town watering hole from demolition and have it preserved as a historical landmark, seemingly grounds him in Kingston Falls and helps fuel his mission to save the town from certain destruction.
However, the next time we catch up with Billy and Kate, in GREMLINS II, they’ve ditched their hometown for the Big Apple and the lure of career opportunities. Billy’s a person who produces now, not just a kid with a clip-on tie struggling to make ends meet for his family. This works against the sequel, because part of what anchors Billy and Kate so resoundingly in the first film is their rejection of consumerism and dedication to preservation – not only to the town’s survival against the gremlins, but to old ways of doing things.
They’re out of place in New York City well before the gremlins even arrive. The gremlins are anarchy, of course—pure, undiluted pandemonium—and we know there’s no keeping that in check for very long. But they’re also the antidote in many ways to what we see as the central problem posed in both films. How do you choose what to cherish when the world around you keeps constantly moving forward, and telling you that your value system no longer means that much?
As the gremlins transform, consume and destroy everything in their path, it forces Billy and those around him to not only ban together, but to define and prioritize those values in ways that make the most sense to them. In this way, the gremlins act as a mandate for change, jarring individuals out of stagnant behaviors and forcing them toward a course of decisive action.
And while at the heart of all innovation lies some form of destruction, in choosing what to salvage and what to ultimately let go of, the lesson offered by the series is that it’s important to value what you have, no matter how much the world outside your door keeps changing.