Short Circuit (1986)
When I found this film listed on BBC iPlayer I was a bit worried. Short Circuit was one of my favourite films as a child, and I was in two minds whether or not to watch it again. I was worried that in re-watching something that I loved so much as a kid now, at 23, that I’d find the humour too childish, that watching it fresh would remove the happy memories I have of it through rose tinted glasses. All these fears in mind, I took the plunge, and I am happy that I did. My worries were unjustified and instead of spending ninety minutes cringing through shielded eyes, this repeat viewing reinforced Short Circuit’s greatness, discovering even more to love.
So for those who haven’t seen it, Short Circuit is a sci-fi comedy that tells the tale of Number 5, the fifth in a series of prototype S.A.I.N.T (Strategic Artificially-Intelligent Nuclear Transport) robots developed by the US Military contractor, Nova Laboratories. Following a demonstration of the robots killing power, Number 5 is hit by a lightning surge, and ‘malfunctions.’ The rest of the film is a series of various hi-jinks and capers, as Number 5 escapes the lab, encounters Ally Sheedy’s Stephanie, and learns how to be human; all whilst Nova labs security, his fellow SIANT robots, and his inventors, attempt to recapture him.
The comedy comes fast and thick in Short Circuit, from physical and slapstick comedy, such as 5’s initial escape from Nova Labs, to the subtle layer of adult humour which I hadn’t picked up on as a child. The scene with the two elderly famers, found here, is a prime example of the multilevel humour found in Short Circuit – a robot dancing and driving a truck, and an old joke . This was extremely refreshing, and several times had me laughing out loud, especially at the miss-pronunciations of common American sayings by Fisher Steven’s Ben Jabituya (Eat my dust, Newton Crosby. Let us break wind!).
The humour is not Short Circuit’s only high point, however – it also has heart. Watching Number 5 become aware of the value of life, after accidently crushing a grasshopper, and then seeing his fear at being ‘disassembled’ (killed) by his manufacturers to fix his ‘malfunction’ leads to perhaps the most memorable line of the film: ‘Not malfunction Stephanie. Number 5 is alive.’ Watching Five discover his purpose, to kill, and refuse as it is morally wrong is genuinely heart warming. Seeing 5 prove his sentience to his creator, Steve Guttenburg’s Newton Crosby, bought a real smile to my face – and not only from the one about the Priest, Minister, and the Rabbi.
Short Circuit was filmed in the late 80s, at the height of new Cold War tensions, and is a product of its time. Cold War references can be seen throughout – the opening scenes of the movie show the SAINT robots destroying Soviet tanks and transports in a demonstration, showing the full potential of the robots. Despite the inventors ambition for peaceful uses for the robots, they are seen only as killing machines, as one General points out:
‘The only way to secure the peace, Senator, is to be prepared – you see we can parachute these robot guys behind enemy lines, they hide out till the first strike blows over, then each of the little boogers delivers a 25 megaton bomb right up the middle of main street Moscow like the mail man bringing bad news – we call it Operation Gotcha Last!’
These references are most heavy at the start of the film, and not really picked up after, but do give an insight into the period – reinforcing the fact that even this late into the 80s there was no sign of an end to the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation was such that it hang over everyone’s head. (Maybe not relevant to a film reviewer, but this was something I found interesting as a historian.)
The acting in Short Circuit will never win any Oscars, most characters played brilliantly over the top, from The Breakfast Club’s Ally Sheedy as the over-excitable Stephanie, to my personal highlight, Fisher Steven’s Jabituya, a scientist with an over exaggerated Indian accent and traits, despite his upbringing in Bakersfield. His mispronunciation of the security chief’s name, Skroeder, is a line you can see coming from miles away, but is delivered so brilliantly that you laugh anyway – it is little surprise that he was given the main co-star role in the sequel.
I can’t finish this review without first mentioning the excellent work of the puppeteers controlling the various robots. It is clear most of the budget has gone on the animatronics, and it is money well spent – all credit is due Number 5’s puppeteer and voice, Tim Blanney,, his designer, Syd Mead of Blade Runner and Tron fame, and the robotic supervisor, Eric Allard – whom the director credits as being the ‘most valuable player in the film.’ Number 5 shows emotion as well as any human actor, and more so in some cases, naming no names. *cough* Kristen Stewart *cough*
It is hard to imagine if a similar film could be made today, without the Cold War overtones, whilst there is more than enough conflict in the world, with the advances of UAV technology and drone strikes, it is difficult to envision Short Circuit being anything but an 80s classic – if made today it would either be a gritty, modern day reboot, or a dumbed down CGI caper aimed at young children. There is talk of a third sequel or a series reboot, but I find it doubtful that a new film will ever live up to the originals, the middle ground Short Circuit travels is hard to sell to studios these days.
So Short Circuit is a Sci-Fi/Comedy with a surprising amount of heart, which is just as funny today as it was nearly 30 years ago on its release. This is a film that I remember loving as a child, and am happy to report not only holds up to my memories, but surpasses them, the subtle adult humour interwoven with in bringing another level to the film, further cementing its place in my mind as a classic family comedy. 9/10