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Movie

Short Circuit
(1986)

 

Strange as it now may seem, and certainly few were talking about it in hushed tones at the time, John Badham was one of the more reliable directors of the 1980s. Blue ThunderWar GamesShort CircuitStakeout and into the first digit of the ’90s with Bird on a Wire, he made a string of successful but forgettable movies (War Games is actually pretty good, though) that put the lie to the idea the talent behind Saturday Night Fever had a career ripe with potential ahead of him. Badham made a career out of journeyman gigs, and you could imagine at least a couple of his ’80s features bearing a “Steven Spielberg presents” production banner. Unfortunately, his sensibility seemed better suited to the straight thriller than the action comedies that became his bread and butter. Short Circuit arrives in the Spielberg-initiated, post-E.T. and post-Gremlins (and post-R2-D2 if it comes to that) wave of cute creatures with whacky voices who get up to all sorts of hi-jinks. It’s relatively harmless (with one notable exception) and utterly pedestrian.

There’s so little effort on display, you wonder if Badham took the job out of desperation. Bills to pay, American Flyers had flopped (pre-Kevin Costner’s big break). The premise – a robot made for military operations is invested with consciousness and goes AWOL – could work as merrily for a straight thriller as a kids’ comedy. With the right guiding hand, and this might have been a lot of fun. Puppeteer Tim Blaney (who also voiced Frank the Pug in Men in Black) invests Johnny Five (not actually so-called until the final scene) with an innocent goofiness that is quite endearing. At least at first.

The constant barrage of TV and movie mimicry becomes tiresome after a while, in a manner I’m sure a Joe Dante or John Landis would have avoided. They also might have infused the whole with a genuine air of zest and anarchy, seizing on the more corruptive elements and taking pot shots at its half-arsed moral position. It’s difficult not compare Number Five’s movie riffing with the TV-obsessed aliens in Dante’s Explorers from the previous year. And the idea of corporations weaponising innovations (or toys) is much more playfully and satirically handled in Dante’s Small Soldiers a decade later (Short Circuit is rigorously devoid of depth). Cute as Number Five is, with his demands for “Input” and thesaurus-like digressions on subject matter (when he breaks Stephanie Speck’s china he notes “Numerous fragments. Some large. Some small”), he also physically resembles a benign metallic version of Brundlefly from David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake (out the same year).

No one is trying to convince us that Five or his company have any real-world hardiness. I guess they do at least look like they’re period-accurate cartoonishly robotic, the laser weaponry aside, but their precise function never really flies. Named SAINT (Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport), they represent the “most sophisticated robot on planet Earth”, adapted to parachute behind enemy lines and take a 25-megaton bomb right up main street Moscow, thus “ensuring peace”. I’m sure there are some parallels to drone technology to be had for whoever helms the remake (in development for years now), and they’ll be a subtle as a brick, but its difficult to believe a machine as conspicuous and clumsy as SAINT would pose any serious capability of infiltrating enemy territory (the design comes courtesy of Blade Runner’s Syd Mead). Which, of course, is Soviet, this being the mid-80s.

Also, this being the ’80s, the star (Johnny Five aside) is Steve Guttenberg. His success and ubiquity during this decade still seem like some kind of mystifying palsy that gripped the period and can be used in case for why the period was so devoid of culture, class or anything to wax nostalgic about (except, of course, plenty has been found, as with any era). I guess his appeal was a certain naughty schoolboy cheekiness; certainly, that’s how he found fame as Mahoney in the Police Academy series (further evidence in the case of consigning the decade to the dustbin). Diner aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent Guttenberg movie, and he’s incapable of bring anything more than lightweight frizz to any picture (The Bedroom Window for example). Here he plays a shit-hot scientist and the designer of Johnny Five, Newton Crosby. Newton wears polka dot shirts and would rather tap out tunes on a Casio keyboard than hobnob with the big military types. He’s a genius who is both witty, laidback and shy of girls. What are the odds?

This being the ’80s, concerns of feeding the military death machine take an understandable back seat to cashing a pay cheque (chucklesome Steve tells us how “Originally, I had non-military purposes in mind. I designed it as a marital aid”, attempting to break out those Mahoney cahonies) His principles only extend as far as the raising of a fey objection; he certainly wouldn’t act on them. Newton also refuses to believe in the possibility that Number Five is, indeed alive. Until his mind is opened to the truth by hippy flake Stephanie (Ally Sheedy in a brief, post-Breakfast Club flirtation with standard Hollywood romantic interest roles; here she’s third fiddle to Johnny and Guttenberg – no wonder she didn’t keep playing the fame game).

The scene where Five analyses the constituent parts of a liquid Newton has pressed between the folds of a piece of paper, and then describes what it looks like to him, is a neat encapsulation of what the writers are getting at, but its played and staged with zero magic. Perhaps there’s some subtext here about the power of imagination and limits of scientific insight, but it’s all very one-note. Frankenstein’s Monster gets name-checked, and there may be a suggestion of a moral imperative not borne from divine law (asked who told Five it was wrong to kill, Johnny replies “I told me”), which may be the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it (if they thought that much about it at all). It’s also unfortunate that Johnny seals the deal with regard to his humanity by laughing at a racist joke Newton tells (one might argue it’s okay for Steve to tell it as he’s Jewish, and if his character is Jewish then perhaps his robot is too).

Stephanie keeps a house full of stray animals (including a skunk) and drives around in a Snack Shack van selling natural foods. This is the level the movie is working at. Because she’s seen E.T. she thinks Five must be an alien (“I knew it. I knew they’d pick me”). She’s the ’60s free spirit reconstituted as a writer’s cliché (in fairness to scripters SS Wilson and Brent Maddock, they hit almost all the right notes with Tremors a few years later, so maybe this was much wittier on the page) but she still listens to atrocious movie tie-in songs at her place. The actual generation, as typified by Austin Pendleton (always good nasal value) are now sell-outs making big bucks. It’s just as well Newton has forty acres he can run off to live on, eh? Forsake the rat race for the dream of twenty years before (minus the changing-the-world bit).

For all the ineffectuality of Short Circuit, there’s still an element that raises eyebrows. Fisher Stevens plays Ben Jabituya, a comedy Indian the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Peter Sellers starred in The Party (well, maybe Spike Milligan went there on TV). This amounts to a hilarious accent and even more hilarious mangling of phrases (“I am sick of wearing the dress in this family”, “I am standing here beside myself”, “Her pants are blazing for you” and an inevitable “Oh my goodness gracious”). On top of that, Ben is something of a PG-rated sex pest. I don’t think you can really use arguments along the lines of “No one knew better” at this late stage. To compound this, with Sheedy and Guttenberg passing on the sequel (if Steve said no, there must really have been issues with it) it was left to Stevens to step up to leading human duties. Besides the political incorrectness, there are other occasional inappropriate asides for the adults. An elderly lady, seeing the advance of a military goons, admonishes her husband “I hope you took the grass out of the glove compartment”, while one has to assume the spirit of Saturn 3 is being invoked when, in reply to a reporter asking if Five tried to molest Stephanie (just why would that be an instant consideration?) she replies “No, he’s not that kind of robot”.

Short Circuit is also something of a Police Academy reunion (like it needed one), as G.W. Bailey (Harris) shows up as the belligerent bad guy. His presence compounds the idea that this has the pungent whiff of a quickie TV-movie, made in a weekend with locations from every other episode of The A-Team. The staging is clumsy throughout, and David Shire’s score is so of its time it hurts. There’s a “that’ll do” quality to the effects too, including Five imitating a grasshopper. Badham was no doubt limited by the lack of versatility of his star(s), but he could have summoned some inventiveness surely? It’s rubbing salt in one’s own wounded creativity that Johnny and Stephanie dance to a clip form Saturday Night Fever; Badham’s been reduced to pre-formed studio product. There are also numerous Three Stooges references, so I’m sure this is high on Mel Gibson’s list of favourite movies.

There’s no reason not to remake Short Circuit (other than Wall E having already aped the design and adorability). It’s a fairly crummy movie, but one with an easily identifiable selling point. However, the idea of a boy from a broken home making friends with Johnny Five stinks to high heaven. The director of Alvin and the Chipmunks is attached. By the sound of it, Short Circuit Re-Fused will be lucky to approach even the mediocre quality of the original.

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