Number Five is alive.
This new special edition re-release of Short Circuit on DVD is conveniently well-timed alongside Pixar’s animated Wall-E. Both movies feature lookalike robot protagonists, although Short Circuit’s Number Five is much taller and lankier than his squat CGI counterpart. If anything, the two appear to be kindred spirits—programmed for one thing, only to discover they can be much more.
Nova Robotics is demonstrating its new S.A.I.N.T. robots for the U.S. Army. These ‘bots are shown as the ultimate soldiers, mowing down jeeps and tanks with their deadly lasers. This displeases their creator, Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg, Cocoon), who originally wanted them to be more than just weapons. When one of the robots, Number Five (Tim Blaney, Men in Black), is struck by lightning, it acts erratic, wandering off on its own, in search of “input.” Thanks to a series of outrageous mishaps, Number Five manages to get outside the Nova complex and into a truck owned by Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy, WarGames). Although frightened at first, Stephanie soon realizes that this is no ordinary robot. Somehow, impossibly, Number Five is alive. Now, Stephanie and Number Five have to convince Newton and Newton’s foreign pal Ben (Fisher Stevens, My Science Project) of Number Five’s uniqueness before trigger-happy military man Skroeder (G.W. Bailey, Police Academy) disassembles Number Five…permanently.
After the goofy synth-pop opening credits end, the first shot in Short Circuit is a field of grass, with some vividly red flowers in the foreground. This serene image lasts for a few seconds, only to be destroyed as a tank drives right in front of the camera, squashing the flowers. Here is a small, helpless living thing being destroyed by an overpowering, unthinking machine. This nicely sums up the predicament Number Five finds himself in. He’s alive, and fighting for his rights as a living thing, but the military-industrial complex—the go-to villains for a lot of mid-80s fantasy flicks—doesn’t understand this, and wants to cut Number Five’s life short before it even begins.
Of course, for any of this to work, the movie needs two key ingredients. First, we must be convinced that Number Five is indeed alive. Second, he’s got to have some human characters to interact with in a meaningful way, so that we care he is alive. The first one is handled nicely. Number Five—he doesn’t gain his more widely-known “Johnny Five” moniker until later—is quite a creation. Our heroic robot was designed by futurist Syd Mead, who provided Blade Runner with its distinctive visuals, and constructed and operated by Hollywood robotics expert Eric Allard, creator of the Energizer Bunny. These two had just what it took to create a concoction of wires and servos that not only looked like a genuine, functioning robot, but one that could show personality as well. With its long, gangly arms and neck, Number Five looks wild and unpredictable at first. But then, he makes a few wisecracks, and you can clearly tell when his otherwise metal façade is happy, sad, confused, or just hanging out and enjoying the music of El DeBarge (more on him below).
You have to wonder sometimes what actors are thinking when they agree to appear in a movie with a non-human star, whether it is a dog, a robot, a monkey, a dinosaur, some sort of troll-like creature or whatever. In most cases, the non-human star is the one everyone came to see, and for every memorable character like Drew Barrymore in E.T. there are dozens of other less memorable ones like, oh, let’s say Scott Grimes in Critters. In this case, though, Guttenberg and Sheedy jump into their roles with so much energy and enthusiasm that they do come off as likable, if a little over the top. Sheedy wears her heart on her baggy-sweatered sleeve. We see her character has a thing for adopting stray animals that no one else wants, so it’s a simple leap for us to believe that she would end up caring for Number Five, no matter how strange or potentially dangerous he might be. Guttenberg is clearly having fun as the cocky hero type. As the super-genius that the plot hinges on, his character gets to say and do a lot of things that most others wouldn’t get away with, and Guttenberg plays that with a grin and a confident swagger throughout.
No mention of the acting in Short Circuit would be complete without discussion of Fishers Stevens as Ben, Newton’s comedy relief Indian sidekick. Is it grossly offensive to have a white guy playing an Indian guy, with gags about him mispronouncing words and mixing up common phrases? Yeah, I guess it is. That being said, Ben means well. He’s a positive person, he’s always there for his friends and, despite the language barrier, he’s actually smart and does a lot of clever things. This disc’s commentary reveals that Bronson Pinchot was originally up for the part, but he instead opted for another project. It doesn’t take much deduction to assume that project was the sitcom Perfect Strangers, which debuted the same year, with Pinchot as a distinctly Ben-like character. Either way, Ben is a stereotype, but as far as stereotypes go, he’s not as bad as most.
What else can be said about Short Circuit? The humor is of a gentle, simple type. The discussion of what is and isn’t life and how a machine could be alive is also done in a simple, gentle way. It might not be thought-provoking, groundbreaking cinema, but it’s light, breezy fun. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, give it a shot.
Newly remastered for this DVD and an accompanying Blu-ray release, the widescreen picture on looks mostly good. Daylight scenes are appropriately bright and vivid, with plenty of nice greens and reds that pop off the screen. The occasional night scene, though, looks to my eyes like a little too grainy than it should be. The audio fares much better with music and laser beams sounding excellent.
The best of the extras here is easily the commentary with Badham and writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (Tremors). They go over everything, from the origins of the script, to technical troubles from the set, to story and casting elements that never made it to the final product. This commentary is pretty much everything you could ever want to know about Short Circuit. The other extras are strictly retro, with featurettes and interviews recorded on the set during production. Everyone shows a lot of enthusiasm for the film, and there’s a lot of close-up looks at all the work that went into Number Five’s design and production.
The extras on this disc are great and provide an excellent inside look at the creation of Short Circuit. There’s one major contributor to the film that goes mostly unheard of, though, and that is the legendary El DeBarge. His “Who’s Johnny?” is the anthem of the movie, and, for fans, his voice will forever be linked with it. The song itself is still in the movie, as it should be, but the video—which featured cameos by Ally Sheedy and Number Five—is not on this disc. I know music rights and DVDs are often a complicated issue, but the Short Circuit experience just isn’t entirely complete without the video.
Life is not a malfunction. And neither is this movie.