Often when I watch I movie, I check the movie in on Facebook. It’s a neat little way to engage with friends about movies that I’m currently watching or I have just seen. There’s also a clear trend: the more obscure the movie, the less response a check-in generates. Therefor I hardly check-in art-house movies since they often fail to get even one like. A movie I was expecting to receive little response is Short Circuit. Short Circuit is a 1986 movie about a robot who comes to live and develops a conscious. It was successful at the time and got a sequel, but that was it. It seemed as if the only cult status it achieved was in my head. Unlike similar duologies from the 80s like Ghostbusters and Gremlins there were never these constant rumors about a part three or reboot. To me it seemed like the Short Circuit movies were simply forgotten.
To quote the Doug Bradley as Pinhead in Hellraiser III: “Not quite”
A small group of people responded to my Facebook post. Most of them in their late 30s/early 40s. Their comments mostly revolved around quoting the movie. Quotes like “Malfunction. Need input”, “Number 5 is alive” and “disassemble”. Apparently Short Circuit is not a forgotten movie. Quite the contrary so it seems.
Short Circuit revolves around a robot designed for military purposes. When it’s accidentally struck by lightning it becomes alive starts to develop a conscious. He manages to leave the army base and ends up with Stephanie. She’s a peculiar young woman who runs an ice cream shop and shares her home with a large variety of animals. But the army is on the lookout for the robot, named Number 5, which is armed and cost a hefty sum to make. Plus, you don’t want this kind of technology in enemy hands of course.
During this cat and mouse game Number 5 learns about the value of life and makes friends with Stephanie. They also eventually become on friendly terms with two of the people trying to retrieve Number 5: his creators. At first they rightfully doubt their robot has become sentient, but eventually they are convinced and will do anything to prevent the military from disassembling it.
I referenced Short Circuit in my review for Bumblebee. A movie with similar themes. A robot designed for war becomes best friends with a young woman. Short Circuit itself was made hot on the heels of E.T. and the influences are hard to miss. There is enough material to set it apart completely and Short Circuit is very much it’s own thing. But without the success of E.T. this movie would have been a lot different, if it would have been made at all.
Short Circuit is a kid’s movie, but one adults can appreciate well. It might be aimed at kids, but it is never childish. Number 5 might be a bit too cute for it’s own good, but that’s also one of the charms of the movie. Here’s machine designed to kill people and it becomes this pacifist character who refuses to do exactly that because he deems it wrong. The robot has more humanity than the average human.
Director John Badham balances the movie nicely between serious scenes and slapstick. One minute there is a touching scene, the next Number 5 is taking out Numbers 1-4, who are sent after him, in a scene full of laughs. The relationship between Stephanie and Number 5 is sweet with the highlight them performing a dance routine to a song from Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees. An in-joke since Badham also directed that movie.
1986 sure was a weird year in terms of women and sex. That year Lea Thompson had sex with a giant talking mallard in Howard the Duck. In Short Circuit Number 5 actually flirts with Stephanie while she’s in a bathtub. Now it never gets any more explicit than that and Steve Guttenberg is introduced as the love interest shortly after. But still: 1986 what a weird year you were.
Another problem this movie has is Fisher Stevens. He plays Ben Jabituya, one of the creators of Number 5. When asked where he’s from he replies Bakersfield and that his parents were from Pittsburg. This is a joke since he is obviously of Indian descent and we are expecting an exotic location as the answer. He speaks in a stereotypical Indian accent which is called patanking. But to almost everybody’s surprise, a surprise that came often years later: Fisher Stevens is a white actor. He’s actually in brownface make-up. To his credit, he is really convincing in the role, fooling even Americans of Indian descent at the time. But in this day and age, he would not get away with it.
Aside from that little smudge Short Circuit holds up surprisingly well. It’s a fun family movie, with special effects that still look good after thirty years. Number 5 to me, is a legendary cinematic character. Right up there with E.T. and Gizmo. Two other classic characters from the 80s and basically household names. Too bad Number 5 never got the same recognition. But for me Number 5 is alive forever.