Short Circuit (1986)
Short Circuit (1986)

Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy and Adventure Running Time: 1 hr. 38 min.

Release Date: May 9th, 1986 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: John Badham Actors: Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, Fisher Stevens, Austin Pendleton, G.W. Bailey, Brian McNamara, Tim Blaney, Marvin J. McIntyre, John Garber




s a tank and other military transports approach a bunker in a field, a heavily fortified squad of robots unleashes laser blasts that annihilate the oncoming enemies. It’s all part of a demonstration by Nova Laboratories’  Robotics division in Washington, hoping to sell the notion of their S.A.I.N.T. prototype robots, possessing superior artificial intelligence. The automatons are a sophisticated, highly adaptable weapon (capable of carrying a 25 megaton bomb), each costing $11 million, which must be approved by the U.S. military, as well as by Senator Mills (Barbara Tarbuck), who wishes to meet the inventor: Dr. Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg).

“I don’t hobnob!” Crosby has no interest in the public relations aspect of science, preferring instead to joke around with his various communicative robot pals. When the number 5 unit is connected to a generator for a debriefing session, and a lightning bolt fries its circuits, the team becomes chiefly concerned with the potential costly damages. But no one is able to immediately analyze any problems with the mechanism. Certainly, the crew and staff could never have anticipated that the surge of electricity would cause some unusual side effects – such as giving “Number Five” a certain sentience and a curiosity for the finer things in life.

“It’s outside the fence!” Understandably, Nova labs needs to get its pricey piece of hardware back, especially since it’s still armed with a deadly laser. But Number Five isn’t interested in returning to the station, thanks to some major malfunctions. This results in a retrieval team being sent out to incapacitate the robot. But not everyone views the inquisitive little unit as a threat – such as Oregonian caterer, pacifist, and animal-lover Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). “You don’t have to blow it up, Skroeder (G.W. Bailey, playing the overzealous security captain intent on hunting down and destroying his metal nemesis)!”

Like R2-D2 on a road trip adventure (or WALL·E, long before his space voyages), Number Five is a family-friendly, mischievous, fun-loving sort of alien visitor (bearing obvious similarities to E.T. as well, particularly in his shape). He can speak, primitively, though the character design excels in being expressive without the use of language. His eyes convey a wealth of emotions, with flashing lights and whirring components that take the forms of eyebrows and eyeball movements. He’s also mostly humanoid, so his hands give him a dexterity and relatability as well. Of course, his purpose more than anything else is to change the lives of those with whom he interacts – for the better (his morals are of a higher standard than his human associates), just as long as they can tolerate his initial, unintentional destructiveness.

“You can’t die; you’re a machine.” As Number Five continues to soak up “input” (such as reading books or watching television), he learns potent pieces of information, such as the meaning of life and death – a momentarily profound realization, before it gives way to further misadventures, such as clumsily driving an escape vehicle through traffic. Although “Short Circuit” raises some absorbing questions about advancements in artificial intelligence (while also providing an objectionably stereotypical sidekick turn by Fisher Stevens), it’s predominantly a comedy, focused on the fun of an adorable creature disrupting the peace.

Guttenberg is too goofy to be much of a hero, though he’s something like Rick Moranis in his many nerdy-scientist roles. It’s the charming machine and his damsel-in-distress who keep the picture afloat, putting a twist on conventional movie romances, as well as offering up a deviation from the scary robots that so often populate ’80s sci-fi. Some of the humor doesn’t stick, and the villains aren’t unique enough to properly counter the slapstick-oriented pursuits and escapes, but Number Five is a striking cinematic figure – and the finale is quite satisfying.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10