Should I Watch..? Short Circuit
What's the Big Deal?
Short Circuit is a comedic, family sci-fi film released in 1986 and is directed by John Badham. The film stars Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy, Fisher Stevens and G.W. Bailey and concerns a military robot who suddenly develops a human-like intelligence and begins to question his existence. The robot at the centre of the film, known throughout as Number 5, was designed and built by special effects guru Syd Mead who also worked on Tron (1). The film went on to gross around $40 million in the US and generated enough interest for a sequel a few years later. However, critical response at the time was mixed and due to political events and the relentless advance of technology, the film has suffered somewhat in the intervening years.
What's It About?
At the shadowy NOVA Robotics facility in Oregon, a series of prototype robots are unveiled to the military with much fanfare by the company President, Dr Howard Marner. The five robots, known as Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport (SAINT), were designed by geeky loners Newton Crosby and Ben Jabituya who are more concerned with peaceful applications for their technology than for use in covert operations in Russia. After the demonstration, the fifth robot is struck by lightning and quickly finds itself bumbling out of the NOVA facility with its programming erased and a new-found sense of curiousity about the world.
Number 5 soon finds himself at the door at local animal carer Stephanie Speck who mistakes Number 5 for an alien and quickly befriends him, showering the robot with "input" about the world beyond. But Number 5 soon develops an understanding of mortality after accidentally crushing a grasshopper and vows never to return to NOVA again in case they disassemble and kill him. Unfortunately, the US military are keen to recover their lost investment so security chief Captain Skroeder gathers his men together and sets off to retrieve (or destroy) Number 5 while Crosby and Jabituya pursue the robot to try and prevent its destruction...
Newton Crosby, PhD
Dr Howard Marner
Number 5 (voice)
S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock
Release Date (UK)
5th December, 1986
Comedy, Family, Sci-Fi
What's to Like?
Well, you certainly can't accuse the film of being too seriously. Short Circuit has the feel and look of some of Disney's live-action output like The Love Bug (2) with not a hint of controversy to be found anywhere. Well, we'll get to that in a minute... In the meantime, the film remains an enjoyable family frolic with plenty of dialogue for adults to enjoy while the film's true star—Number 5—displays more charisma than most of the adult cast. Looking at Number 5 as he speed-reads books, flips a coin like Jason Mason and fends off Stephanie's abusive ex-boyfriend, he is so helplessly entertaining that you can almost forgive the film's flaws.
There are also enough hints to suggest that the screenplay might have offered something a bit deeper than this comedic caper. Questions of sentience, existence, mortality and artificial intelligence feel as though they are on the cusp of being raised before Badham suddenly remembers his target audience and throws in a scene of Number 5 making a mess for breakfast. Granted, it's no Blade Runner (3) but it's interesting that such issues might have been raised in this film if people behind the scenes were perhaps a bit braver.
- In both this and Short Circuit 2 (4), Number 5's voice was provided by puppeteer Tim Blaney on set. Badham felt that on-screen interaction would have been better if the lines were spoken on set instead of inserted during post-production.
- Of the film's $15 million budget, $1.4 million was spent on the Number 5 robot. Most of the arm movements were controlled by a "telemetry suit" worn by the puppeteer which transferred the puppeteer's arm movements directly to the robot.
- Director John Badham has both a cameo (as the TV news cameraman) and a sly reference to another of his films, the iconic Saturday Night Fever (5), when Number 5 tries to imitate John Travolta's dancing.
What's Not to Like?
Instead of delivering the philosophical aspects the script promises, the film is content to be a middle-of-the-road family comedy and however you cut it, that is a disappointment. Sheedy's character is unbelievably kooky for a fully-grown woman and her ready acceptance of Number 5 into her life never feels natural at all. Worse, her partnership with the affable Guttenberg has about as much romantic chemistry as a couple of dead batteries but at the very least, they're nothing like as offensive as Stevens is as the socially awkward Indian programmer Ben. Decked out in blackface and lumbered with a heavy accent, the concept of the character is borderline racist - if the part called for an Indian actor, why wasn't one cast? Or are we supposed to laugh at the portrayal? Either way, it was a hideous miscalculation by the producers.
Its biggest problem is one that very few sci-fi films can effectively combat - in today's world, it looks about as contemporary as a cave painting. Number 5 looks like a crude precursor to Disney's WALL•E (6) while the extremely powerful lasers demonstrated during the film's opening (blowing up tanks and the like) have been reduced to produced little more than colourful lights by the time of the film's ending. I was just left wanting more from the film - younger viewers and childish adults will enjoy the slapstick but unlike any Pixar film you could name, it almost completely fails to engage with adult viewers.
Should I Watch It?
There isn't wrong with Short Circuit besides Stevens' racist characterisation, which you'd hope Hollywood would discourage these days. It's a nice little movie with enough story and humour to keep things trundling along... well, nicely. But it is a missed opportunity - there are some interesting ideas that might have made the film a bit more interesting but such thoughts are swept under the carpet and the ridiculous chase continues between goofy robot and incompetent military forces. The film would have benefitted from better casting and scripting but at least it will amuse younger viewers for a time.
Great For: children, Eighties nostalgia, anyone interested in robotics.
Not So Great For: people working in robotics, adults, the entire Indian subcontinent.
What Else Should I Watch?
There are a number of live-action films from the Eighties that are fondly remembered as great family entertainment. Flight Of The Navigator (7) is a much more brave picture, following the adventures of a young boy missing for a number of years encountering a mysterious alien craft. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (8) introduced Indiana Jones to audiences across the world and remains arguably the best in the series. And of course, there is the magical E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (9), which is one of Spielberg's very best family films.
Robots also featured quite prominently in the Eighties from Arnold Schwarzenegger's murderous time-traveller The Terminator (10 to Peter Weller's indestructible law enforcer Robocop (11). Meanwhile, there is always the sequel to Short Circuit for anyone wanting another slice of Number 5's shtick. Mind you, I'd probably avoid it if possible - the film lacks both Sheedy and Guttenberg which means that Stevens' racist character is given the full stage alongside Number 5. Indeed, one critic described the film as being "as much fun as wearing wet sneakers..."
© 2017 Benjamin Cox