Beep beep boop…
1986’s Short Circuit was probably my first kinda-grownup film. Back in the day, of course, when it took years for movies to come to VHS, it felt very au courant to snag them from the video store. I remember being twelve and begging my parents to rent Short Circuit for a slumber party I had with my friend, Amanda. When it came out on DVD, I bought it, of course, but as of this year, it’s been a really long time since I’ve seen it.
The film opens at the paramilitary think tank, Nova, where a demonstration of some new weaponized robots called S.A.I.N.T.s, or Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transports, is taking place. They can shoot lasers, blow things up, and basically be ruthless soldiers. The idea is to drop these very pricey machines behind enemy lines (read: Russian ones) and have them take out the enemy with minimal risk of human soldiers’ lives. They are, for all intents and purposes, non-flying drones.
Inevitably, a rain shower thunders in, and everyone’s got to get back on the bus. The party’s not over, though, because there are refreshments to be had in the event room, served by robots, of course. Meanwhile, the S.A.I.N.T.s are outside getting packed up, and the Number Five robot gets struck by lightning.
The man behind the S.A.I.N.T.s is Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg). He and his trusty sidekick, Ben Jabituya (Fisher Stevens) are busy hobnobbing with the senators and investors who have come to look at their creations, when their supervisor, Howard (Austin Pendleton) informs them that Number Five has escaped. He doesn’t know what this rogue machine will do, so he sends Newton and Ben after them.
Little do they all know that when the lightning struck Number 5, he came to life. His newly minted consciousness can only summon up one thought: “Need input.”
Number 5 is doomed to frustration until he meets Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), a lady who lives in a nice Victorian house in Astoria, Oregon. She has her own food truck business, and in her free time takes care of her menagerie. Dogs, cats, chickens, birds, rabbits, a skunk, a possum, a ferret–Stephanie loves animals and only draws the line at snakes. She also draws the line at her ex-boyfriend, Frank (Brian McNamara) coming over and harassing her.
When Stephanie meets Number 5, she thinks he’s an alien because he’s all backlit and mysterious. She gives him a crash course in Earth life. House. Ceiling. Floor. Air. Music. Light. It’s not until she pulls out an encyclopedia that Number 5 really gets excited. He proceeds to read every book in Stephanie’s house in a couple of hours. “More input,” he says, while turning over her table with the good china on it and dumping raw spaghetti out of the box. Stephanie goes from being bowled over to annoyed pretty quickly.
Out of desperation, Stephanie turns on the TV, and Number 5 watches it all night long. She comes in the next morning to find him channel surfing between a workout program, a Colgate commercial, and George Raft in Scarface. He’s already an addict–even when Stephanie takes away the remote, Number 5 figures out how to switch on the TV himself.
Meanwhile, Newton and Ben are out in the Nova van combing around for Number 5. Their jobs at Nova apparently require them to be held hostage, because it’s the first time Newton’s driven in five years. Ben has to remind him to switch on the headlights. There’s a temptation on Ben’s part to pick up women, but Newton reminds him they have to look for Number 5. Newton’s a bit of a nerd who’s not exactly confident around women, anyway.
Inevitably, Newton and Ben do find Number 5, who by then has stolen Stephanie’s food truck because he’s found out Nova wants to disassemble him. And they find Stephanie, who has to convince them Number 5’s not just a machine anymore. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say this: All that input Number 5 got at Stephanie’s house comes to the surface in a weird, wonderful fashion.
This movie is adorable in a lot of ways, and it hits the nostalgia right in the feels. While it’s slightly risque, it’s so subtle it’ll go over the heads of most kids. The film doesn’t get especially deep, but it’s not meant to. It’s a cute story with plenty of charm, and since it was 1986, very little CGI.
The star of the show, Number 5, was designed by Syd Mead, who also worked on Blade Runner. Number 5 was either a telemetry-controlled puppet or run by remote control, of course, and since it was the 1980s, when robots and computers were really becoming part of everyday life, it’s enjoyable to see the actors react to their mechanized co-stars.
There are certain aspects of it that we couldn’t get away with today, namely Fisher Stevens playing an Indian guy. He reflected all the stereotypes, including a host of malapropisms, and he did it three years before Hank Azaria first voiced Apu Nahasapeemapetilan.
Speaking of Fisher Stevens, according to IMDb, his Indian was so effective that Indian audiences mistook him for Bollywood actor Javed Jaffrey, who had made the action film, Meri Jung in 1985. Granted, Fisher Stevens has a rounder face than Jaffrey, but there was enough of a resemblance that Jaffrey had to explain to the Indian public that it was Fisher Stevens who played Ben, not him.
Small confusion aside, Short Circuit still holds up, although a bit dated. Revisiting it years after I first begged my parents to rent it brought back a lot of memories of a zany decade when technology that we take for granted today was beginning to flourish. Future generations may see it as a relic, but here’s hoping they also see how enjoyable it is.
Short Circuit is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.