Movies of the 1980s had a fascination with robots, almost to the point of obsession. It was the decade that brought us The Terminator, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and even the cake-wielding robotic butler from Rocky IV. While some explored the technophobic relationship between man and machine, Short Circuit, which turns 30 tomorrow, instead delivered a fish-out-of-water comedy about a robot with a larger-than-life personality.
Hot off the box office success of Wargames, director John Badnam decided to make Short Circuit immediately after reading Brent Maddock and S.S Wilson’s script. The film follows the adventures of ‘Number 5’, an $11 million killing machine described as “the most sophisticated robot on planet earth”. In the opening scene, Number 5 and his four counterparts, ruthlessly display their deadly abilities by annihilating an army convoy before doing a salute and making a cocktail to a cheering audience of military top brass.
Through kismet or divine miracle, Number 5 is later struck by a bolt of lightning and becomes sentient. If this life-giving spark is an act of God it must be the ultimate test of human faith, as the robot, who eventually nicknames himself ‘Johnny 5’, is inhabited by an annoyingly wacky and childlike personality. However, whilst wisecracking Number 5 (voiced by Tim Blaney), is inherently irritating, he’s often endearingly funny while inadvertently escaping the robotics compound to explore a world he knows nothing about.
’80s staple Steve Guttenberg plays Number 5’s inventor Dr Newton Crosby, who along with bizarre (and debatably racist) assistant Dr Ben Jabituya (Fisher Stevens), attempts to track down his wayward creation and understand what happened. Not the sort of actor to be typecast, G.W Bailey essentially reprises his Police Academy character as an overzealous gung-ho military captain, intent on destroying Johnny 5 before the ‘malfunctioning’ robot can do further damage.
Pursued by the US army, Number 5 meets singleton Stephanie (The Breakfast Club’s Ally Sheedy), who after being convinced Johnny 5’s alive provides the robot with input on the world while protecting him from his creators.
The key to a film like Short Circuit is believability of character. Can what’s essentially a prop become a fully developed personality? In designing Johnny 5 the director turned to Eric Allard and Syd Mead (designers on Blade Runner and Aliens), who aimed to create something that would look physically realistic and anthropomorphic without being a man in a suit. Originally conceived as a stop-motion puppet, Allard eventually opted for a mixture of fifteen remote controlled puppet versions costing $1.5 million.
Short Circuit manages to blend technical wizardry with the art of puppetry. It’s easy to forget that, at any one time, twelve people are manipulating Johnny 5’s bodily movements. Like or hate him, he’s the biggest personality in the film. Number 5’s voice work and articulations convey a believably independent and soulful character. The puppet even had a voice box so lines could be delivered through a microphone to the actors, which adds to the realism of their interactions.
Guttenberg basically plays himself and, while generally good, never seems the best fit for a genius robotics engineer. Initially introduced as a workaholic nerd who’d rather be programming a mechanical hand than to have any human interactions, Guttenberg slips too quickly into being a sociable and outgoing person. His associate, played by the non-Indian actor Fisher Stevens in makeup, faced backlash for being interpreted as a racist. This is understandable, as the running joke of Ben’s character is how he misunderstands English words and phrases. Whilst Fisher’s portrayal may offend real Indians, many did believe he was an Indian actor for years after the film’s release. In recent interviews Fisher expressed regret of taking the role, stating “looking back, oh my god. It should have been played by an Indian person.”
Interestingly, Ben’s funniest lines come when he isn’t saying something wrong. There’s a fantastic scene where, when asked “what if [Number 5] goes out and melts down a bus load of nuns, how would you like to write the headline on that one”, he quickly and innocently responds “nun soup?”
Sheedy develops a believable relationship with Number 5, playing an animal-lover who adopts strays and decides to give shelter to this innocent robot. It’s an interesting dynamic, with Stephanie almost having a maternal influence on the childlike Number 5, which is good because the robot has a personality only a mother could love.
Short Circuit sits in a slightly awkward space between being a film for adults and children. The dialogue and innuendo can be quite adult in nature (including a slightly creepy scene where Johnny 5’s eyes literally pop out after seeing Stephanie in a bathtub), but it’s essentially a family flick with broad comedy moments and a simple story kids can grasp and enjoy.
It has a high-concept narrative that’s never fully explored, alas. The film often feels like it might expand to ruminate on bigger moral questions, such as what it means to be alive and our relationship with machines, but these moments are always interrupted by comedy. This keeps the pacing and the tone very light, but it’s patronising to think bigger issues couldn’t be explored in a family-friendly adventure.
Released on 9 May 1986, the film was a success and made a $40 million at the US box office, later spawning a more overtly comical sequel in 1988. Short Circuit’s cultural impact is easy to see in films such as Wall-E (in terms of the robot’s design) and Chappie (in terms of the premise and narrative arc). For many children of the ’80s it’s a modern classic that’s stood the test of time. But while nostalgia pulls it through some weak areas for the over-30s, newcomers unaccustomed to family films of the era may find Short Circuit’s cheesiness a turnoff.
Cast & Crewdirector: John Badham.
writers: S.S Wilson & Brent Maddock.
starring: Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, Fisher Stevens, Austin Pendleton & G.W Bailey.