By Matt Fleming. RETROGRADING is my attempt to parse the films of yesteryear, just to see if they hold their ground.
Short Circuit (1986).
When I began this series, I evoked Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, themes of which were adapted in a number of ‘80s films. From Weird Science to the Mannequin series, Hollywood used the creation of life as a strong variant on their already silly premises. As a youngster, I was drawn to the whole gamut, with Short Circuit at the top of the list. The idea of a robot, built to fight potential wars, gaining sentience and rebelling against its directive is awesome, especially to a kid who enjoyed The Three Stooges too much.
However, there is a problem with remembering. Any positive memory that can be reassessed with twenty-plus years of experience and learning is subject to some stark revelations. Short Circuit is a perfect example. The movie I remember is fragmented by a child’s level of attention and knowledge, but the real artifact differs in multitudes. Memory can bring artifacts to life, but it cannot correct wrongs, and Short Circuit is filled with wrongs.
The film’s opening credits sequence is actually very entertaining and well-designed, depicting the construction of the SAINT robots, highly advanced weaponized machines designed to limit human casualties, like programmable drone soldiers. Nova Laboratories, a high-tech Cold War-era defense contractor, is unveiling these new experimental prototypes when robot number five is struck by lightning. The resulting power surge erases its programming, seemingly giving the new creation sentience. After haphazardly making it out of the facility, Number Five bumbles his way into civilization, landing atop a weird food truck owned by Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). Stephanie believes Number Five is an alien, so she invites him into her house. She provides him with his request for “input,” and the robot consumes every encyclopedia (remember those?) in Stephanie’s house. He spends some time watching TV, where he learns about The Three Stooges, infomercials, and disco. Number Five’s childlike wonder attracts Speck, who usually dates jerks who don’t care about learning. Eventually, she realizes that he is a malfunctioning weapon and tries to return him to his factory.
His creator is a genius engineer named Newton Crosby (a painfully nerdy Steve Guttenberg), whose closest confidant is a racial caricature of someone from India or Pakistan (or Bakersfield) named Ben Jabituya. The two scientists race to find Number Five before the trigger-happy head of Nova Security, Captain Skroeder (the fantastic G.W. Bailey) can destroy the malfunctioning robot. Newton’s boss, Dr. Howard Marner (Austin Pendleton), is caught between business and science and can’t decide whether to let Crosby and Jabituya pursue the robot or to shoot the two scientists. What follows is a confusing series of captures and escapes: along the way, and for no reason at all, Newton and Stephanie catch feelings for one another, prompting Ben to talk about his “woody.” Newton is skeptical, and when given the chance, runs a myriad of stupid logic tests on Number Five to assess his sentience. (He is convinced when the robot laughs at a stupid “priest, minister, and rabbi” joke, which seems like a less than compelling argument for intelligent life.) Number Five and his two human friends continue to evade capture, until finally cornered by Skroeder’s military convoy. Skroeder’s team is seen destroying Number Five, prompting everyone to go home. Newton and Stephanie, still driving an apparently stolen Nova Labs van, discover that Number Five created a decoy, which was destroyed, and managed to survive intact. The three retreat to Montana, and the robot changes his name to reflect the soundtrack’s El Debarge single, “Who’s Johnny.” Roll credits.
While the premise itself is silly and fantastical, Short Circuit’s biggest shortcoming is the writing that attempts to flesh it out. The movie’s 98 minute run time is too long, as much of the movie consists of setting up funny scenarios for our robotic protagonist and his pursuers, while the obligatory romance angle is wedged in between. When Number (“Johnny”) Five is expanding his knowledge with the help of his new human girlfriend, his precociousness is endearing and his interpretation of banal media is chuckleworthy, if dated. However, the human dialogue is beyond cliche, and at many points boring or racist.
Steve Guttenberg’s standard comedic smirk is missing here, and at the peak of his career he replaces wit and hijinks with smiles and pseudo-scientific babble. He even has his great foe, G.W. Bailey (see Police Academy, Police Academy 4), but the barbs between the two are all dry and unfunny. Gone are Guttenberg’s comedic timing and clever dialogue, leaving only a curly mullet, which is pretty funny. The writers try to make up for Newton’s lack of humor by giving all the “jokes” to Ben Jabituya, portrayed by caucasian man Fisher Stevens. At one point, Bronson Pinchot was attached to the role of Ben, but then presumably someone informed him that brown-faced, language-barrier racism was kind of out of style. (Stevens apparently needed work so badly that he decided to be the only human in this movie to return for a sequel, giving his character a slight name change and a shot at romance.)
Ally Sheedy excels at acting against Number Five, reinforcing his sentience and near-humanity with her kind eyes and patience. She is terrible as the romantic lead opposite Guttenberg. One can tell by the way the romance is plopped into the middle of the film that writers realized people would think that Stephanie and Number Five were totally going to hook up. Unfortunately, Guttenberg and Sheedy have zero chemistry together, which made me think I’d prefer her going steady with a robot.
Another problem with Sheedy’s character is that much of her dialogue is littered with words like “scummo” and “slimebag,” and she has trouble communicating with most other humans. Her ex-boyfriend, Frank (Brian McNamara), is the “scummo” trying to win her back by selling her three-legged dog to science, so we can see her judgment has been suspect in the past. Speck has no problem relating to a relatively young, robotic life-form, which includes a pretty sexy robot-human-Bee Gees dance number.
The highlights of the supporting cast are character actors G.W. Bailey and Austin Pendleton. To the film’s detriment, Bailey isn’t given a chance to be funny or get punked by either Number Five or Guttenberg, the filmmakers opt to use Skroeder as a basic military goon. Still, his fast-paced delivery provides Short Circuit with much needed stakes, and his ability to yell keeps his character interesting. However, Pendleton’s Dr. Marner is the real drama queen of the picture. Throughout, there is a sense of conflict surrounding Marner, as he yells, “I’m not cut out for this!” Pendleton is most memorable when he attempts to stop Newton and Ben from leaving Nova by bluffing with a pistol and throwing himself before their van, finally relenting to cowardice. At least he makes the most out of some really bad writing.
Make no mistake, Number Five is the absolute best part of this picture. Puppeteer/voice actor Tim Blaney provides the robot with the nuanced humanity that endears the character, and over the course of the film he convinces everyone that he is both a living creature and really cool. Where the writers very clearly miss the mark with actual human connections, they nail it with Johnny Five. He is kind to other living creatures, at least once he understands what “disassemble” means, and he understands that he can transcend the intentions of his design. The scene where he defends Stephanie from the mouth-breathing stereotype Frank is absolutely wonderful (He disassembles Frank’s stupid Trans Am in thirty seconds, then proceeds to use his laser to send him running, pants at ankles). Despite insistence by Stephanie and Newton, it is Number Five who wins the audience over to his side, consistently showing us an open mind toward the importance of life.
Ultimately, Short Circuit is an anti-war film, and although it seems aimed for adults, children are its greatest audience. There are so many dumb jokes that a kid wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) get, but no adult can laugh at easily. It’s really stupid that a movie like this would miss the mark so hard, failing to nail a real audience. The late Cold War provided ammo for prescient films like War Games and Amazing Grace and Chuck, movies that understood the importance of disarmament and reason. Short Circuit attempts to insert a similar sentiment into a movie that is unsure of its audience, and fails at reaching either kids or grown-ups. The movie is not without charm, but that charm is so separated from the human characters that, upon retrospect, it gives little recourse toward the human race.
Enjoyable in parts, Short Circuit is a perfect example of silly fantasy, based in reality, written poorly. If they ever made Johnny Five action figures (see Short Circuit 2), I would definitely own one, but watching the movie itself is actually quite a task. Best viewed with anyone who doesn’t mind racist characterizations or someone who studies artificial intelligence. (Or with me.)
Terrible quotes from Ben Jabituya:
“I am thinking she is a virgin. Or at least she used to be.”
“With excitement like this, who is needing enemas?”
“I am sporting a tremendous woody.”
Terrible quotes from Stephanie Speck:
“Talk computer, not Apache.”
“Wait, isn’t there a home for cobras somewhere?”
“Boy, am I the jerk of the world.”
Amazing quotes from Number “Johnny” Five:
(to Stephanie, in bathtub) “Attractive! Nice software.”
Crosby: “Holy shit!” Number Five: “No shit, where see shit?”
Finally, the best scene of the movie is Number Five trying to make breakfast for Stephanie, in total morning-after mode. He is not good at pancakes.