Short Circuit is one of the most beloved robot-related movies of all time. More than 20 years have passed since I had last seen it, so it was with cautious optimism that I selected it on Netflix. I have fond memories of it, but I was just a kid then. Now, I can see it falls into just about every pitfall of the comedies that characterized the ’80s. It closely follows the sappy E.T. formula, where an innocent, otherworldly creature is hunted by the heartless military authorities. So this is definitely a kid’s film… or is it?
It stars the contemptible Steve Gutternberg (who hasn’t starred in anything worthwhile since), as a carefree roboticist, and Ally Sheedy of The Breakfast Club gets caught in the middle as the animal-loving girl who can’t find a trustworthy man. Notably, Fisher Stevens rounds out the cast as a racist “brown face” East Indian character with a thick accent. He’s full of off-putting sexual innuendos, which kind of tars the film’s family-friendly image. But there’s enough slapstick gags based on The Three Stooges that Short Circuit is clearly appealing to a younger audience.
The undeniable star of the show is Number 5, a prototype built by the NOVA company for the military. It was designed by the legendary concept artist Syd Mead (who gave us the TRON lightcycles and Blade Runner‘s spinners, among others). It’s a fantastic looking robot puppet, and was one of the most sophisticated movie props ever built. It’s expressive eyes are enough to melt any robot junkie’s heart, even if it’s primary objective is to nuke the Soviets. Hit by a jolt of lightning after an explosive demonstration of the robot squad’s firepower, Number 5 inexplicably becomes self-aware and shows incredible intelligence and curiosity. It’s a far cry from the complex and semi-believable explanations made by smarter science fiction, but it’s just one of those things you have to go along with for the sake of the plot.
Of course, all hell breaks loose when Number 5 inadvertently escapes from NOVA’s lab. It’s absolute nonsense with few if any laughs, but it’s still sort of fun to watch out of curiosity. One can’t help but notice the similarity between Number 5 and certain real robots developed since then. I’m sure I’ll probably make a lot of people angry by saying so, but Short Circuit hasn’t exactly aged well. It’s one of the few examples of robots on film where the robot isn’t a villain, so at least it has that going for it. It’s practically required viewing if you’re into robots, but unless you’re on a serious nostalgia kick you’re probably better off skipping it and watching WALL-E again instead.
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