Short Circuit (1986)

Review by Boniface

Short Circuit
was one of those movies that defined the 1980’s. Starring Steve Gutenberg and Ally Sheedy (two quintessential eighties actors), this film tells the story of a robot called Number 5 who is struck by lightning and achieves self-awareness, fleeing from his military-industrial makers in a quest for knowledge and survival. The film was a success and reached number one at the box office during its 1986 debut. But how does it hold up today after twenty-five years?

We can’t fault the film for looking and feeling like an 80’s movie. The opening sequence depicting the robots engaged in a mock battle with some U.S. army tanks is laughable – the robots move so slowly that they hardly seem threatening to a new generation whose concept of warrior-robots comes from the new Transformers movies. Yet there is still a certain charm to the old technology: Number 5 is not a computer animated creation, but a real robot constructed especially for the film (although certain scenes Number 5’s movements are simulated by a very realistic looking puppet). Thus, the pitifully slow movements of Number 5 and his overly simplistic appearance are balanced by the nostalgic, cold hard reality of seeing an actual being in action, not a computer generated image.

The acting is kind of lame, especially Steve Gutenberg, who has never impressed me much as a dramatic actor. But the real problem with this movie is all the bad language. Every character cusses and blasphemes, not just the antagonist (Captain Skroeder, played by G.W. Bailey, “Captain Harris” of the Police Academy films). Gutenberg’s character, Newton Crosby, takes God’s name in vain several times, as does Sheedy’s character. Sheedy says “son of a b**ch” once, and even minor characters, like Gutenberg’s boss and Sheedy’s boyfriend, find time in their brief appearances to blaspheme. Even Number 5, the robotic protagonist, cusses a few times! There are also some double-entendre jokes made by Number 5, such as a mention of “beavers and cherries” in a dialogue with Sheedy.

The only character who doesn’t cuss or blaspheme is Gutenberg’s comedic sidekick Ben, played by Fisher Stevens. But this is no consolation; Ben might not cuss, but he is constantly making sexual jokes. For example, as Ben and Newton go off to search for Number 5, Ben, used to being cooped up in a lab and excited about going out for the day, says, “There are girls out there, Newton! Girls with braziers!” Newton replies, “I don’t know anything about girls, Ben,” to which Ben replies, “Then I would be happy to show you some schematic pictures” (i.e., pornography). This sort of banter occurs frequently. The climax of the film, when Number 5 finally proves that he is indeed alive, occurs in the context of an insulting joke about Christian ministers made by Gutenberg!

I used to watch this movie all the time as a kid and thought it was great; now that I have seen it as an adult, I am appalled at how many adult jokes there were in it that I just (thankfully) missed as a kid.

This is a shame, because the basic premise of the film is actually something a Catholic could appreciate. Life is a miracle. The amazement that the characters experience as they see that what looks to be a mechanical arrangement of parts suddenly coming to life and expressing desires and emotions is meant to serve as a reminder to us that our own lives are equally marvelous. A mechanical assembly that thinks, feels and lives is no less miraculous than a biological assembly that thinks, feels and lives. And just as it takes a strike of lightning, something outside of Number 5’s own mechanical nature, to bring the robot to life, so it takes something outside of nature to bring man to life – the finger of God.

Unfortunately, the cussing and blaspheming that are rampant throughout this movie make it difficult for a serious Catholic to really bond with the film. In fact, upon watching the movie recently, I had to shut it off. I give this film 1.5 tiaras. A rating of 1.5 is reserved for films whose “plot may be decent on the surface, but it suffers from constant profanity throughout, perhaps a lot of nudity or sexual innuendos and sexual jokes” (see Our Rating System).

By the way, when Roger Ebert reviewed this film in 1986, he said, "It's basically a kid's movie, and quite possibly the kids will like it. But they'll have to be fairly young kids." Another reason not to trust secular movie reviews!

This film looks cute, but it’s definitely not one for the kids. Oh, and the 1988 sequel sucks, too.