Number five is alive!
A robot that comes to life and a couple that must try better to understand humanity. That’s the main thesis of John Badham’s Short Circuit, a loveable and mostly heartwarming tale of what it means to be human.
The trailer for Short Circuit shows a US Army thinktank creating the “most sophisticated robot on Earth.” Unfortunately one of those robots escapes into the city and hides out with Ally Sheedy. The robot tries to understand normal household chores, like cooking, while the Army hunts it down believing it might start a war. If the serious/comedic tone doesn’t clue the audience in on the type of film this is, Steve Guttenberg should let them know that this film is meant to be more fun. There’s no good look at the robot, teasing that for the final film, but it seems as if the robot has achieved some form of sentience that its creators are unaware of.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In Damon, Washington, a technology firm called Nova Labs demonstrates their newest project for assembled members of the Army. It is a group of five military grade robots called the Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport, or SAINT’s for short. They demonstrate their ability to destroy troop carriers and tanks with their laser, but also mix a gin and tonic for the project leader, Howard Marner (Austin Pendleton). The technological director Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) prefers to stay inside working on additional programming for the robots rather than attend the demonstration.
As the Army brass moves inside for cocktails, Newton’s assistant Ben Jabituya (Fisher Stevens) finds him and convinces him to join the larger group. While the robots are being placed back inside, a lightning bolt from a freak electrical storm hits the generator charging one of the SAINT models. A quick inspection by an assistant reveals no damage, but SAINT number 5 begins to elicit strange behavior. Number 5 (voiced by Tim Blaney) wanders around the complex, eventually falling into a truck headed off property. Howard locks down the facility but not before Number 5 escapes.
Security Captain Skroeder (GW Bailey) and his team mobilize an impressive cadre of vehicles (especially as security for a private think tank), and head after the robot who is broadcasting its location. They head into nearby Astoria, Oregon where Number 5 escapes the dragnet by jumping off a bridge and parachuting onto a passing food truck run by Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). She finds the robot later that night and believes it to be an alien, who she coaxes into her house, already filled with stray animals of various types.
Finding the Nova Labs plaque on the robot the next day she calls them to have them come pick up the robot. While they wait, Number 5 is seeking “input” from the world around him by reading books, watching TV, and exploring the backyard. He accidentally squishes a grasshopper and Stephanie tells him about death, which causes Number 5 to realize that he will be disassembled and “die” if the people from Nova capture him. Newton and Ben show up to collect the robot, astonished that it’s working so well, but Skroeder and his team arrive and start shooting. Number 5 is turned off and collected to go back to the lab.
En route, Number 5 turns itself back on having become extremely sentient. It destroys its tracker and returns to Stephanie’s house. Newton and Ben argue with Howard that they want to examine the robot closer to see why it appears to be acting in an autonomous way, but Howard is a businessman and can only see the bottom line and the potential issues with a robot run amok. Stephanie’s scumbag ex-boyfriend Frank (Brian McNamara) shows up looking to capture the robot for a $25,000 reward, but is chased off by Number 5 who has learned a number of fighting moves from watching old TV shows and movies.
Skroeder deploys three other SAINT units to capture Number 5, as Stephanie and Newton develop a relationship. Number 5 reprograms the other robots to act like the Three Stooges and then using a decoy makes it appear that he was destroyed by Skroeder’s helicopter attack. Newton finally realizes that Number 5 is really alive and also that hanging around other people can be a good thing. He and Stephanie leave for Montana where they can hide out on a ranch with the robot, who has adopted the name of Johnny Five.
“Life not malfunction. Not malfunction. I am alive” – Number 5
History in the Making
Short Circuit is part of a series of films in the mid-80s that attempted to bring sci-fi to a wider audience by making the films more family oriented. It has the silliness and naiveté of a Disney film (such as CHOMPS or The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) but not quite the same warmth or heart as found in that studio’s films. Produced by TriStar Films, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures, Short Circuit revisited an age-old story of giving life to an inanimate object. Since the story of Pinocchio, the idea of imbuing sentience into humanoid objects has been a major story element for sci-fi stories. The film also capitalized on the advancements of real-world robotics in order to build its non-humanoid star, Johnny Five.
As the popularity of science-fiction properties had grown over the previous decade, studios sought to make larger budget films that hopefully appealed to as many people as possible. This meant creating properties that were more general, broad and family oriented. Films such as Back to the Future, Cocoon, DARYL, Explorers and Short Circuit all utilized themes that were not explicitly sci-fi with more generalized and humorous moments to entice a wider group of audiences to see the picture. This was only partially successful, as only a small portion of these films has endured as widely popular titles.
As stated above, Short Circuit is not a traditional sci-fi film. It’s a story about a military grade robot gaining some approximation of sentience and two characters learning that human beings are ok to be around. The use of an actual robot as the star of the film was something that hadn’t been done before. Of course robots in film had been popular for quite a while (listen to an interesting discussion of the automatons on the August 23, 2021 episode of Enjoy Stuff–here on RetroZap). Ever since Metropolis (1927), robots on screen have captivated audiences, with characters like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, or the duo of C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars fueling the imagination of fans. But many of these robots were not autonomous in themselves. Most of them were clever costumes or props that contained human beings inside performing the actions. These robots usually were only part of the story but never the focus.
There were certainly films that focused on robots, usually as the antagonist, but the humans were always the featured players. Films like Saturn 3, Westworld, and The Terminator played into the fears that humanoid robots, or at least one suitably intelligent, could one day turn on their creators. That’s a very real fear in Short Circuit as well. However much it’s played for comedy, Howard is afraid that the escape of the robot will cost him potential funding and possibly his job. With the SAINT series being military enhanced robots, it’s a very real fear of those at Nova Labs that a malfunctioning device could injure civilians and destroy property which would put a large spotlight on the project. Scrutiny that is probably unwarranted. Skroeder’s belief is just that and he uses all the firepower at his command (in an overly testosterone filled way) to bring back the malfunctioning robot one way or another. In most of these cases, the humans show themselves to be more dangerous than the robots.
Another brief element that the film touches on is Stephanie’s belief that Number 5 is an alien. This was another common trope for the period. It also points out that she’s not really the most grounded of people, if when presented by an advanced robot she believes that it may be an alien being. This is quickly resolved the next morning when she discovers the manufacturing plate on the robots outer hull, which makes her feel both relieved and stupid. This may have been a way to show how out of touch with humanity she was, in not realizing the advances that were capable by humans at that time.
Of course the biggest theme in the film is whether or not Number 5 has become sentient. Is it alive, as it claims to be? Could a random lightning bolt imbue something into the circuits of this robot to make it become sentient and have emotions; things that were not designed into its circuitry? Newton believes that the sentience is only the guise of Number 5 being alive. He thinks that the circuitry is just screwed up and the robot is only mimicking the input it’s getting from the outside world and people confuse that with it being alive, at least people like Stephanie. But from her standpoint, it doesn’t take much for her to believe that the robot is real and alive. She takes care of all sorts of rescue animals in her house. These are obviously not human, but they have the same emotion and feelings that she sees evident in the things that Number 5 does around her house. It gets a little creepy as well, with the filmmakers imbuing the robot with several longing glances at Stephanie, as if it’s in love with her. It sees her in the bathtub and remarks that she has “nice software,” dances with her, and makes goo-goo eyes at her. In the end, Newton runs some very non-scientific tests on Number 5 and finally realizes that due to a “spontaneous emotional response” (laughter) that Number 5 must be alive. It’s a very superficial way to get the character on board with what Stephanie and the audience have been enjoying for the previous 90 minutes at least.
The other element that stands out in the film is the lack of social skills held by the two leads. While Number 5 is learning to be more human, so are Newton and Stephanie. They are both loners, more attracted to non-human interactions: Newton with his robots and Stephanie with her animals. Her introduction is her breaking up with her boyfriend (who is cruel and nasty, and it makes little sense why they would have been together) and taking care of her rescue animals. Her arc is more interesting as she represents the audiences’ surrogate, immediately believing the robot is alive and having fun with it, just as viewers would react. Ally Sheedy brings a joyous bounce to the role, even if she’s a little over the top. But for as over the top as she might be, Steve Guttenberg’s portrayal of Newton is bland. The normally comedic actor is wasted in the role and upstaged by almost every other actor including a robot. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to recapture some of the humorous tension between him and GW Bailey as seen in the Police Academy film. Unfortunately it’s not there. It’s hard to believe that someone could be this awkward and out of touch.
The Science in The Fiction
The creation of Johnny Five for this film was the responsibility of futurist Syd Mead. Mead, who’s design work is evident on such films as Blade Runner and TRON, designed the look and functionality of the SAINT-series robots. His suggestions created the empathetic character that people still recognize today. A number of robots were built for the film, as Number 5 was the fifth in a series. But besides multiple versions seen on screen, there were also a number of robots built to perform different tasks. The SAINT robots in their most basic forms were actual remote controlled robots, something first accomplished with R2-D2 in Star Wars and seen most recently in the horror film Chopping Mall. But Johnny Five could not do everything that his on-screen counterpart could. Many of the gags and scenes with the robot necessitated a clever use of puppetry to make the device perform the proper actions.
Most of the time when Number 5 used his arms, those were puppeted from off camera by an actual human. There are some scenes where the arms do not appear to be completely attached to the robot, and given the action could not be. The advancements in modern electronics and robotry had come a long way in a short time, but they were still not up to making the robot function as it was intended. However, the likeness of the robot to something that audiences may have seen in Popular Mechanics, as well as its humanoid appearance and its ability to emote for the camera lead many to believe that this is in fact a real robot. At the time it was definitely the closest thing that Hollywood had ever got to creating a real, living robot.
The Final Frontier
Short Circuit was a modest hit necessitating a sequel in 1988. With only Johnny Five and Fisher Stevens returning to the film, it was not as big a success and ended the possibilities of further films in a franchise. This film also featured a hit single by El DeBarge, entitled “Who’s Johnny.” This was a song in the film that Number 5 heard on the radio and was the impetus to have it name itself “Johnny” at the end of the film. Ally Sheedy and Johnny Five appeared in the music video, which featured plenty of clips from the film to help promote it. This song was later spoofed by Weird Al Yankovic as “Here’s Johnny,” and focused on the career of Ed McMahon. One other interesting tie-in was a computer game based on the film made for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. Home PCs were gaining a large audience, as were video game consoles, and so a home version of the film was packaged into a fun video game.
While Short Circuit is an enjoyable and wholesome film, it doesn’t really live up to the expectations of what a film like this could have been. The exploration of the union of humanity and robotics would get further exploration with the character of Data in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation and future films including the excellent 2014 film Ex Machina. That being said, the film offers a fun family film that entertains with minor action and humor, and might just be a great film to put on for a Saturday afternoon.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.