Setting the scene
It’s 11 at night on a Wednesday. You’re at Walmart looking for a replacement cable for your Xbox, but forgot that the electronics section closes at 10. In the middle of the aisle outside of the electronics section, there is a $1 DVD bin. Having a look you see some of your favorites; Bill and Ted, Wedding Crashers, and Wayne’s World 2. But what’s that under Police Story 4? It’s Short Circuits! (I mean Short Circuit!) You feel like you might have seen it before but can’t quite remember. $1 seems about what it’s worth so you take it to the register to check out. After waiting several minutes you remember that your Xbox is broken, so you won’t even be able to watch this dumb movie anyways. Shoving it into the candy shelves you leave without ever seeing the movie. You’re the lucky one.
Fortunately for you, I’ve done all of the heavy lifting! Brought to you without any fun at all here’s what I have to say about Short Circuits. (I mean Short Circuit.)
But what happens?
At a top-secret military research lab called Nova Laboratories, we find Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) and Ben Jabituya (Fisher Stevens) working for a man named Howard Marner (Austin Pendleton) designing the next generation of American murder bots which they call Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport, or S.A.I.N.T.s. As military contractors love to do in movies, Howard is making a big show of the robots’ capabilities through such displays as blowing shit up, moving from one place to another, and making cocktails. Unfortunately, they are forced inside by a severe special effects storm, so while the egg heads and the brass have a few drinks (served by yet more robots, though these seem less equipped to kill) the S.A.I.N.T.s are receiving maintenance unaware that things are about to get wacky!
You know that storm I mentioned earlier? Well, it’s making a big ol’ fuss outside, and by god, if it doesn’t electrocute robot Number 5. In a daze, Number 5 tries to follow in line with the other kill machines, but, through a chain of mishaps and hi-jinks, Number 5 kind of just wanders away.
Nova gives chase when they realize he is gone, but Number 5 manages to evade them in another wonderfully silly sequence of slapstick shenanigans that don’t really need to be enumerated, except for how it culminates in Number 5 landing in the back of a truck that spirits him away from NOVA’s grasp.
This truck is owned by Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy) who, upon discovering Number 5, believes that he is an alien who chose her as first contact. Stephanie is the first to see that Number 5 is clearly sentient. She immediately takes a liking to Number 5 and is happy to indulge him in his unhealthy obsession with receiving input about the world. He reads through all of the dictionary, watches all of the TV, and trashes all of Stephanie’s stuff. When Stephanie learns that Number 5 belongs to NOVA she gives them a ring so they could come to pick him up. We find out that they plan to disassemble and study him.
Eventually, his desire to know things bites him in the ass when he accidentally crushes a grasshopper and discovers the existential dread of contemplating one’s own mortality. Terrified of being disassembled Number 5, once again, goes on the lam. He is almost immediately captured by Crosby and deactivated, but just as immediately he reactivates himself and returns to Stephanie. Barely an inconvenience.
Now that Howard and the military know that Number 5 is actively on the run they make, what I would say to be, the exact right decision. Howard sends Captain Skroeder (G.W. Bailey) to capture or destroy the malfunctioning fifth robot in a series of hyper-advanced, killing machines. I really don’t see how Skroeder is the bad guy here, but he is.
Skroeder takes three of the remaining S.A.I.N.T.s and track Number 5 to a forest where there is a robot laser fight that ends in one robot getting covered in poo from an outhouse and the other two disabled. When Skroeder finds the disabled robots they are dressed like the Three Stooges and have been reprogrammed into slapstick mode. One of the robots has moss for hair. It’s pretty funny.
Number 5 takes Crosby to meet up with Stephanie before they go out to hide in the desert where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn where Stephanie and Number 5 spend all night trying to convince Crosby that Number 5 is alive. Crosby is finally won over when Number 5 laughs at a terrible joke that Crosby tells wrong. Everyone is super excited, but, uh-oh, is that the military coming to absolutely ruin the moment?
Skroeder had called in for backup and now Number 5 and his posse are being engaged by armed soldiers. Number 5 tries to flee, but he gets BLOWN UP BY A MISSILE FROM A HELICOPTER! He gets completely blown to bits and the bits are carried off as trophies by the soldiers who just saved the world from a malfunctioning death machine.
Stephanie and Crosby are horrified to witness their once very alive friend’s mutilated corpse being carried off as spoils of war. This upsets Crosby enough to resign from NOVA and steal their van so that he and Stephanie could go grieve or whatever.
BUT WAIT! Number 5 was actually alive and in the van! He’d built a dummy from all of the spare parts in the van and then hid. In the van! Together they decide to fuck off to Montana and Number 5 changes his name to Johnny 5 for some reason. THE END.
Hard wipe to 1988: Short Circuit 2
A few years after the harrowing events of the first Short Circuit we find our good friend Ben Jahveri (still played by Fischer Stevens) trying to make it in the big city by peddling functional Johnny 5 toys. He’s absolute trash salesman. In all the hubbub one of his toys just sort of runs off (like father like son) and bumps into a sales associate named Sandy Banatoni (Cynthia Gibb) who would love to sell the toys in her department store. When Ben tries to explain that he can’t produce very many robots a local huckster named Fredd Ritter (Michael McKean) weasels his way into the conversation and brokers a deal for 1000 robots.
After borrowing money from a loan shark, renting a warehouse, and hiring some workers Ben and Fredd get down to business. But wait? Who are those guys?? THIEVES! Turn out a couple of thieves had been using the warehouse basement to tunnel into a bank across the street. The thieves (Saunders (Dee McCafferty) and Jones (David Hemblen)) proceed to fuck up Ben and Fredd as well as smash their equipment and scaring off the workers.
What will Ben and Fredd do? They have a deadline, but nothing to show for it. They’re in a tight spot.
Fortunately, a mysterious crate shows up at the warehouse, and out pops Johnny 5! Crosby and Stephanie had heard that Ben needed help or something so they sent Johnny 5 to help out. And help he does. When the thieves come back ready to fight for their hole again it’s Johnny’s turn to do the fucking. With the thieves thoroughly whipped, Johnny 5 gets to work building the toys.
Being an ever-curious individual, Johnny 5 takes to the street of the big city, enraptured by all of that sweet sweet input. He mostly just gets into trouble, but he does meet and befriend Oscar Baldwin (Jack Weston) who works at the bank across from the warehouse.
Even though everything is obviously going great, there’s a fly in the ointment. Fredd. This bastard finds out that Johnny 5 is worth a lot of money and tries to kidnap him, even though Johnny 5 is … alive!
Johnny, distraught by the betrayal, flees into the city where he gets arrested. Good thing Ben easily finds him and bales him out so that Johnny 5 could use an electronic billboard to help Ben on his date with Sandy. Sure. Whatever. That’s fine.
It’s less fine when those thieves from earlier lock Ben and Fredd in a restaurant’s freezer so they can finish digging the tunnel before the jewels or something get transported out. In an incredible upset, it turns out that Oscar (yeah, that Oscar) was the brains behind the heist the whole time working his part on the inside. Oscar tricks Johnny 5 (who is an idiot) into helping him dig the tunnel.
I don’t really want to get into it, but Ben uses polyphonic music to lead Sandy to where he and Fredd are trapped. It’s fine. Everything is fine.
Having made it into the bank and discovering the jewels Johnny 5 finally becomes wise to what’s going on, but lo, it’s too late. Johnny 5 is attacked by Saunders and Jones. When Ben and Sandy find Johnny 5 he is an absolute wreck. Ben pilfers parts from a Radio Shack (remember Radio Shack?) to patch Johnny up, but he does, at best, an okay job.
It doesn’t matter, though. Johnny 5 is pissed off. He traps Saunders and Jones before chasing Oscar to a dock where Oscar boards a boat and tries to escape by sea. Hot on his heels, Johnny 5 reaches the docks just in time to swing – from a rope – like Tarzan – onto Oscar’s boat and detain him. This really gets everyone’s jimmies in a rustle and the movie ends with a gold-plated Johnny 5 and a normal-plated Ben getting awarded their united states citizenship. And, as always, Johnny 5 feels … alive.
You thought this was the end of the story, though, didn’t you? Well too bad. They’ve been working on putting together the people to start thinking about a 3rd, that’s right THIRD Short Circuit movie since at least 2008. This is clearly a project stuck in production hell where it belongs. I personally don’t think that the 21st century is going to be very accepting of a goofy robot movie, so we’ll probably never see Short Circuit 3. Unless for some strange reason you consider the 1991 infotainment special from the California Justice Department in which Johnny 5 has his car stolen so he teams up with the fuzz to be Short Circuit 3. Which you shouldn’t.
(Apropos of nothing the titles should be Short Circuit, Short Circuits, and Short Circuit 3.)
So that’s what’s going mise-en-scene, but what about mise-NOT-en-scene? Short Circuit was more successful than I would have expected, frankly. In 1986 it performed better than Pretty in Pink, The Fly, The Three Amigos, and Little Shop of Horrors. Having only cost about $40 million in 2022 money by 1987 it had grossed over $100 million. The movie runs 98 minutes which is well within the acceptable runtime for a movie. Unfortunately, Short Circuit 2 had a slightly smaller budget of around $36 million and made $50 million. Basically what you might expect from a movie that runs for 110 minutes, much longer than the writers themselves would recommend for a comedy.
From here out I’ll basically be cribbing almost entirely from the 2008 DVD commentary with director John Bedham, and writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock because there’s really not much more going on in the world of caring about Short Circuit.
Actually, wait. There was one other care to have about Short Circuit.
Let’s Talk About Ben Jabituya
As you may have figured out, there’s a bit of brownface in this movie. By this I mean that one of the main characters is a white guy with painted skin and a fake Indian accent. Also, I’m pretty sure that his last name is completely made up.
In 2021 Stevens was called out by comedian Aziz Ansari for his part in the movie. Stevens replied, “It definitely haunts me. I still think it’s a really good movie, but I would never do that part again. The world was a different place in 1986, obviously,” which you might notice is pretty dismissive, but at least he wasn’t defending himself mostly I guess. Badham, in 2008, still considered it to be very funny and he is glad that he fought to keep it in.
It’s not like they didn’t have ample opportunity to ditch the joke. One of the producers (Gary Foster) even approached Badham to tell him it was a bad idea. But the crew thought it was a riot, so Badham stuck to his guns. Really, it never even needed to be done. The script didn’t call for it. There isn’t even a single line that relies on him being Indian. So why?
It all began with Brian Penchaw (Beverly Hills Cop) doing a crazy accent in the audition but turning down the roll. When they finally landed on Fischer for the part they asked him if he could do the accent. Fischer said he couldn’t do it, but it’s unclear if he meant he was apprehensive about the brown face, or just didn’t think he had the chops. Conveniently, they also didn’t think he had the chops, so they sent him to renowned dialect coach Robert Easton. Robert Easton coached such noteworthy actors as Lawrence Olivier who famously wore blackface in Othello (1965) and Al Pacino who played a Cuban in Scarface (1983).
There’s not much more to say on the subject except maybe, ‘Stop, wtf. Don’t do that.’
It’s not surprising to me at all that John Badham would completely wave away the racial insensitivity because he just wants to make people laugh, and Ben made them laugh. That’s the impression I got from the on-set dynamics. There was obviously some serious work to be done, but if people were having fun making it then it must be fun to watch. And it is fun to watch. Number 5’s eyebrows alone are delightful enough to carry the movie. Number 5 is so charming that Ally Sheedy unironically, told an interviewer, “[Johnny 5 is] so alive.” (sorry I think that’s hilarious). Try and tell me that hanging out with a cool robot all day doesn’t sound rad as hell.
And what a freakin’ puppet!
But, first, we should rewind.
How Did This Happen?
Wilson and Maddock were intrigued by the idea of robots and how people would interact with them after selling an animated instructional video that featured a robot. Specifically how in most movies robots are accepted as being sentient, even though most people in real life would be incredulous at best.
Elsewhere, Badham approached the legend, Syd Mead, to design Number 5. Mead designed futuristic oddities for Star Trek, Alien, and Johnny Mnemonic. Probably most iconically he designed the Voight-Kompf machine from Blade Runner and did concept art for the AT-AT from Star Wars. They even sent Mead to a Japanese robotics expo so he could be inspired by contemporary robot technology and his background in industrial design is clearly on display.
But who built this feat of engineering? None other than Eric Allard. That’s right. The very same Eric Allard did special effects on such classics as, Back to the Future II, Demolition Man, Waterworld, 2002 Spider-Man, Spy Kids, and Snakes on a Mother Fucking Plane.
I would venture to say that the best part of these movies is the robot itself and everything else is just an excuse to see Number 5 do cool shit.
And cool shit he does but also is. There were 15 robots used while filming this movie. 8 remote controlled (2 of which had fully articulated hands), 7 stunt robots, 3 puppets (with up to five puppeteers using the Japanese Bunraku style with a full-time eyebrow guy), 2 arms, but only 4 heads that they popped off and shared among them.
With so many moving parts (literally) you would expect there to be a million ways for things to go wrong. You’d be right, but you might not have expected John Badham and Eric Allard to plan for nearly every last one of them. The robot didn’t have a single function that wasn’t going to end up on screen. The parts were hauled around in service trucks set up for any necessary repairs. When one robot broke he had an understudy in the wings ready to take over. While Badham had parts A, B, and C, a secondary crew might be using parts X, Y, and Z to film a chase scene across town. They knew what they wanted and they got it. A skill like that shouldn’t be undervalued.
Obviously, this is the real world so there are always at least a handful of accidents in any production. Short Circuit is no different. While filming the scene where Stephanie and Number 5 nearly drive off of a cliff Ally Sheedy and Number 5 nearly drove off of a cliff. The safety cable that was meant to stop the van snapped, but the van still came to rest at the edge of the cliff with zero injuries. That was the only shot take they took and that’s what’s in the movie.
The only other accident was on a rainy day when one of the full-sized Number 5s went a bit loony and took off full speed down the road. Badham chased after the robot and tackled it so he could disable the robot. As I mentioned, these robots weighed 400 pounds so Badham and Allard quickly realized how lucky they were that nobody was seriously injured and took extra care in the future. Too bad that wasn’t caught on camera. It would have fit right in with the movie’s whole vibe.
Writing Advice from the Rest
We’ve now explored our robot, but how about the writing? As mentioned before Wilson and Maddock wanted to write a movie that would display the more skeptical side of the human mind. Conceptually, a robot seeking to validate its sentience could be a deeply introspective film. Obviously, that’s not what we get here, but it’s also not really what we got from iRobot, so maybe it’s just a fine idea.
Wilson and Maddock described their script process as ‘easy to write, hard to shoot.’ It almost felt like they were writing progressively more difficult scenes until Badham would finally tell them it was too much. That moment never came. There were plenty of ad hoc rewrites during filming, but Badham described himself as having a poor imagination, so whatever they wrote he shot, and boy did they give him a lot to shoot.
I think I can sum up the approach from Wilson and Maddock with, “when things get dull, someone’s pants need to come down.” We see this all throughout the film. There’s an expositional fight between Number 5 and the other S.A.I.N.Ts? Time to cover this robot in doodoo. Ben and a soldier need picked up from their broken-down van? They better be playing toss-rocks-into-a-cup for the 2 seconds they’re on-screen when Crosby pulls up. The story and plot seem secondary to what you can put on screen that will make people laugh. It’s not even necessary to be consistent with the names, or backstories. Did you even notice that Ben got a new (also made up) last name in the second movie? Or that he clearly says he’s from Pittsburgh, but then he’s right there with Johnny 5 getting his citizenship. But if people are laughing then you’re doing it right. Right?
Honestly, I’m baffled by the amount of genuine effort that went into this movie. There was a level of professionalism, (besides the brown face) that I wasn’t expecting to find behind the lens of what I still consider to be a very stupid movie. Everything went right, even when it went wrong. At the end of the day it made money, and it made a cultural impact, even if it’s just got boiled down to ‘Johnny 5 is… alive!“