Innocuous if transparently calculated high-concept, high-tech entertainment for the unwashed masses, Short Circuit was a modest hit upon its release in the summer of 1986. The picture grossed around $40 million in the U.S. and Canada on a budget of probably around one-quarter that amount. It spawned a much less successful sequel and, rather surprisingly, is considered a big enough commodity today that the remake rights were snapped up by Dimension Films this past April.
Though I kind of liked director John Badham's earlier WarGames (1983), also featuring Ally Sheedy, I didn't get around to seeing Short Circuit until settling down to watch Image Entertainment's generally good if unexceptional Blu-ray disc. Watching it was a real '80s flashback, and viewers of my generation may enjoy it for that alone. As a film, however, it's incredibly derivative, stealing blindly - everything from E.T. to Gog - while its humor and flashes of sentiment are forced and unconvincing, though overall it's a harmless enough picture and hard to dislike.
The thin plot opens with the demonstration of five seemingly unstoppable prototype robots intended for battlefield use (though more of an arms race deterrent against the Soviet Union), on the grounds of Nova Laboratories in Washington State. A bolt of lightning results in a massive power surge in robot Number 5; it begins behaving eccentrically and inadvertently it's taken outside the laboratory grounds and unwittingly abandoned several miles away.
Now inexplicably sentient, "Number Five is Alive" (so it proclaims later on) - and the cute, curious robot begins exploring the countryside, eventually making its way to the Astoria, Oregon, home of Stephanie Speck (Sheedy), a single woman who drives a lunch wagon (not an ice cream truck, as others have suggested) and has a soft spot for stray animals. At first she thinks Number Five (voiced by Tim Blaney, one of its puppeteers) is an extra-terrestrial, then is disappointed that it's merely a product of the military, then is taken with it again because of its childlike insatiable thirst for knowledge. ("Need input! Need imput!" it cries.) Stephanie obliges it with volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which in an amusing scene it uploads in a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, frantic director Howard Marner (Austin Pendleton) dispatches programmers Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) and outrageous Asian Indian stereotype Ben Jabituya (Fisher Stevens) to retrieve Number Five before it kills somebody with its deadly laser arsenal. At the same time, trigger-happy head of security Skroeder (G.W. Bailey) is chomping at the bit to blow Number Five to smithereens.
Though its cute anthropomorphic robot is obviously an E.T. knock-off, Short Circuit most closely resembles earlier live action Disney comedies of the late-1950s and early '60s, pictures like The Absent-Minded Professor, Moon Pilot, and Son of Flubber. Those films dealt with science-fictional concepts, often gently satirized the military and other institutions, featured nebbish scientists and leading ladies whose romantic rivals were brutish buffoons, offered cute animals in supporting parts, and so on. All of these elements come into play here - there's even a three-legged mutt named Beasley - and like the Disney sci-fi / fantasy comedies this is rife with imaginative and comical special effects.
But it's also a high concept '80s comedy so there's endless product placement, hilariously gratuitous mild swearing to ensure a PG rating, myriad pop culture reference, a very '80s theme song ("Who's Johnny," performed by El DeBarge), a Brat Pack star, and that icon of mindless '80s comedies, the inimitable Steve Guttenberg.
Guttenberg is about as believable as a genius computer programmer as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough, but he's likable enough, and likeability is all that is asked of him. Sheedy and Matthew Broderick had made a cute couple in WarGames, both were about 20 at the time but could play younger. At 24 Sheedy had lost her teenybopper charm and though still attractive, the chemistry between her and Guttenberg (or her and Number Five for that matter) is pretty much non-existent.
Number Five, largely the creation of Syd Mead and Eric Allard, seems patterned after the less anthropomorphic robots from Gog (1954), a forgotten '50s sci-fi film with a vaguely similar story. The character is almost lovable in its early scenes; its unfettered joy of discovery is infectious, and for a bunch of nuts and bolts, it's surprisingly expressive. Later though, after Number Five has consumed hours and hours of pop culture watching TV, he gradually becomes annoying instead of endearing, something like a geek at a sci-fi convention who incessantly quotes reams of dialogue from TV commercials, old George Raft movies, and Three Stooges shorts.
One aspect of the film that didn't seem to bother contemporary reviewers but difficult to imagine today is Fisher Stevens' malapropism-prone ("With excitement like this who needs enemas?") Indian stereotype, the kind of thickly-accented sidekick role Pedro Gonzalez Gonzales used to excel at. At least Gonzalez Gonzalez was really Mexican; I thought such virtual blackface performances went out with Torch Song.
Video & Audio
Short Circuit was filmed in Panavision and processed by Technicolor, with theatrical prints by Metrocolor. The 1080i, 2.40 video here is pleasant but not especially outstanding. It's a good presentation of the raw material; it's just that visually the film isn't all that impressive and not helped by Pacific Northwest locations where the filmmakers obviously had to contend with frequently overcast skies. But the image is sharp and detailed; on Blu-ray it's easy the marionette-style wires that occasionally manipulate some of the robots' movements, and there's an audacious traveling matte shot easily spotted (and freeze-frameable) near the beginning trying to darken some background skies.
The audio, originally standard Dolby Stereo, is typical of its period: comparatively weak centered dialogue with stronger music and effects tracks. For Blu-ray it has been remixed to DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1, but the end results are still pretty comparable to what the presentation would've have been like in a good Dolby movie theater circa 1986. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Virtually all the supplements included here are old enough to be collecting social security. Most of the material dates from a September 2000 Special Edition DVD, though all the behind-the-scenes material is basically raw video dating back to the film's original release 22 years ago.
Of primary interest is the eight-year-old Audio commentary with director John Badham and writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. It's okay, with a fair amount of dead air early on as the filmmakers tentatively find things to talk about, but eventually the discussion gets relatively lively.
Also carried-over from the 2000 release is an isolated music and effects track, slightly updated text biographies and production notes drawn from the original press kit, and a rather poor photo gallery. The photos are interesting, but perversely reduced in size to about one-sixth the size of your TV screen.
The video extras, all 4:3, seem to consist of material designed for syndication to local news and news magazine shows: There are several minutes of raw behind-the-scenes on-set video and footage documenting the creation of Number Five, interviews with Guttenberg, Sheedy, Badham, Mead, and Allard (the latter two segments run considerably longer than the others) mixed with poorly transferred clips from the film. Also included is an original trailer, a candidate for the worst-looking trailer on Blu-ray so far: it's full frame and looks flat-out awful.
Short Circuit isn't bad but it isn't very funny or especially satisfying, either. There were worse ways to kill an afternoon in the summer of 1986, but today it's more an interesting relic than engrossing entertainment. The transfer is okay but nothing to write home about, and the extras are nothing new. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.