I am sure that, back in the mid-1980s, I wasn’t alone in believing that we were just a lightning strike away from a robot becoming sentient. I probably wasn’t alone in believing Fisher Stevens was a native-born Indian, too, but that’s another matter.
You can thank Short Circuit for all of this. Massively successful and influential in its era, it’s a story of an evil military corporation vs. one man. Or rather, one robot who thinks he’s a man: The now-infamous Number 5.
Director John Badham had directed WarGames a couple of years earlier, and he seems to have wanted to turn again to the question of when computers would become thinking, feeling, autonomous beings. It was a hot topic of the era, as the personal computer was becoming commonplace and processing power was increasing at an unheard-of rate. (Movies like The Terminator, which offered a horrifying doomsday scenario, only increased the conversation.) Little did we realize that, 20 years later, ‘sentient’ computers would still be too far off to even predict.
But lightning, well, that’s a different issue. Here, a cold, murderous killing machine gets fried and turns nice. Not only does his voice change into a hipster lilt (Tim Blaney will always be Number 5 to me), he becomes obsessed with learning (‘Input!’) and deathly afraid of being taken apart (‘No disassemble!’) Number 5 is accidentally loosed from the Pacific Northwest compound where he was built and quickly lands in the home of Stephanie (Ally Sheedy) a caterer with a small animal farm on her property. Chasing after Number 5 are his creators, the droll Newton (Steve Guttenberg) and the awesomely stereotypical Ben (Stevens).
Amazingly, Newton can build and program a robot by himself but can’t drive car and has only rudimentary language skills. Ben seems completely and equally incompetent, which is probably why the real bad guys, military might manned by the inimitable G.W. Bailey (famous from the Police Academy series), manage to get closer and closer to Number 5, with every intent to blow him into oblivion. (They have a point: His weapons are still armed and he knows how to use them.)
But Stephanie convinces Newton that Number 5 is alive, and in one heartfelt scene in the desert, Number 5 proves it. The movie hits rock bottom when Newton concludes that Number 5 is indeed alive because he laughs… at a joke about ‘a priest, a minister, and a rabbi.’
As much as my younger siblings loved this movie, looking back at it today it’s clear that Short Circuit is absolutely awful, and not just because of Ally Sheedy’s haircut. The dialogue is downright awful and the entire scenario is laughable. I can’t imagine what a real response to an escaped military robot might be, but I doubt it would much resemble two idiots driving aimlessly around town in a modified ice cream truck.
Number 5 proved endearing enough that he got his own sequel, which was a staple of cable TV for many years. (The movie, which had ‘Johnny Five’ running wild in the city with Ben by his side, made half what the original did.) But give ol’ Number 5 a little credit for spawning a mini-genre of robot-themed comedies, many with the ‘But is it human?’ theme to explore. On second thought, considering the overall quality of those films, maybe that’s not something to be proud of.
The DVD includes a commentary track, a making-of featurette, and lots of minor ephemera.