“Short Circuit” is a science-fiction comedy about a robot that malfunctions and gains a human-like sentience. The SAINT robots are designed to be deployed on the battlefield, driven by caterpillar tracks and with a shoulder mounted laser they are a formidable force (as we see in the opening scenes of a military demonstration). When lightning strikes one of the robots, Number 5, he manages to free himself and escape from NOVA Laboratories. Leaving his life of military service behind he embarks on a journey of discovery, reading everything he can in an insatiable desire for “input”, and finds a friend in the person of Stephanie, a young woman who agrees to allow him to stay with her. Meanwhile, the robotics engineers are doing their best to recover the expensive piece of hardware before it does serious damage in the outside world. John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games) directs from the screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who also wrote the Tremors series of films.
The film is a fish-out-of-water comedy with most of the jokes coming from Number 5’s attempts to understand the world outside him. A large part of the films success comes from the likeability of its main character. With his child-like innocence and almost all his dialogue coming in the form of quotes from movies or snappy one-liners, Number 5 is sure to resonate with children. The effects on the robot are also impressive. As a fan of practical effects, I loved seeing this full-size robot trundling around, and it has a surprisingly expressive face. The design has become something of a classic, with Pixar’s “Wall-E” looking remarkably similar.
The film has all the elements of a fantastic “feel good” movie. It has a fairly standard plot, with the main characters on a voyage of self-enlightenment while sticking it to the man in the form of the military sent to capture them. The humour is broad, with slapstick humour, gags and impressions, but inoffensive. Tim Blaney provides the voice of Number 5. Ally Sheedy gives a great performance as Stephanie, the feisty anti-military counterpoint to the various men who are hunting down Number 5. Steve Guttenberg and G.W. Bailey (known for their roles in Police Academy) are perfectly cast as the geeky robotics engineer Newton Crosby and the permanently enraged military captain Skroeder respectively. Fisher Stevens plays Ben, Newton’s co-worker, and provides most of the humour on the human side. The enjoyment of this character, who also returned for the sequel, relies heavily on his strong accent and mangling of English words and expressions. Austin Pendleton is also good as Howard Marner, another representative of NOVA.
There are so many memorable scenes in the film and great chemistry between the various pairings, Number 5 and Stephanie, Newton and Ben, that there is rarely a dull moment throughout. Probably my favourite scene in the film is when Number 5 ties up the other robots that were part of his group and reprograms them to perform a Three Stooges routine. And as with all good “feel good” films, there is the moment of averted disaster at the end. For dramatic turnarounds, it is hard to beat a character that you have come to know ‘surviving’ being blown apart by a missile.
With its blend of Science-Fiction and slapstick, a loveable central character, practical effects, and a message about life and learning, “Short Circuit” is definitely one of my top “feel good” films.