Short Circuit (1986)
Dir. by John Badham
Starring Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, Fisher Stevens and Austin Pendleton
An experimental military robot gains sapience when it is struck by lightning after a demonstration of its fighting capabilities. Escaping from the compound of the tech contractors who created it, it befriends a food truck owner, who begins to teach it what it means to be alive. However, the military isn’t about to let a heavily-armed robot just wander around, so the company’s private security and its two programmers mount a mission to locate and retrieve it…or destroy it if they can’t.
This is another childhood favorite that I haven’t seen since we watched it at Sci-Fi House in college* about twenty years ago. It’s one that my family had taped off of TV, and was probably my second favorite movie at age 8 (the Goonies would have been my first). Despite the sci-fi sounding premise, it’s very much a comedy, albeit a fairly light one. There’s a lot of slapstick humor involving the robot – three other robots literally get reprogrammed to run a Three Stooges routine at one point – as well as a good deal of fish-out-of-water comedy involving both the robot “Johnny Five” and the two programmers sent to find him.
Speaking of which, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way up front. Fisher Stevens, who is very, very white, plays an Indian man in brownface for the entire movie. Complete with an extremely exaggerated cartoonish accent. It’s pretty cringeworthy, and would never have gotten past the drawing board in 2020. Whitewashing is one thing, but actual brownface? Hell, it shouldn’t have gotten past the drawing board in 1986. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect from a movie made in the 1960s, not the 80s.
Fisher Stevens himself claims that when he was cast the character was written as white, and they asked if he could “do Indian” after the fact. If true (and I’m not sure that I buy that), making that change so late in the game may actually have been the saving grace of the character. There’s not all that much in the way of specific Indian stereotype humor in the film, and most of the comedy seems to hinge on two character traits: an inability to use American idioms correctly, and his constant horniness.
The character really shouldn’t work, especially with thirty years of racial casting hindsight, but I kinda found myself enjoying Stevens’s performance despite myself. Yes, he reads as a stereotype, but much more of a stereotype of the “sex-obsessed computer nerd” than of anything specifically ethnic. Even his constant malapropisms with the English language seem, to me at least, as more of a mildly fun quirk of this person specifically, rather than some sort of ethnic joke. However, the fact still remains that one of the main characters of the movie is very clearly a white man in brownface, being played for laughs, and I can completely understand how that would be a dealbreaker.
Given the issues surrounding Fisher’s character, I was surprised that the performance that held up the least for me this time around was Steve Guttenberg’s, the theoretical lead actor in the movie. The script identifies him as a socially awkward robotics genius, who sleeps in his lab and hasn’t even driven himself home in five years. Guttenberg, however, is totally miscast as that sort of character. He’s way too affable and charming, and really doesn’t come off as socially awkward at all. This character should be Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, but it seems that they wanted a conventional leading man instead, and it doesn’t work for me at all.
No, the real lead of the movie is the robot, Number Five (voiced by Tim Blaney), or Johnny Five as he renames himself halfway through. It’s pretty apparent that like 80% of the budget went to creating Johnny Five, and it’s money that’s really well spent. Other than a couple of obvious bluescreen matte shots, Johnny Five looks stupendous, and is totally believable as an actual military robot. His design, and especially his head shape, is clearly influenced by E.T.’s. He’s even mistaken for an alien at one point, when he first encounters Stephanie. He’s also just as clearly a major influence on Pixar’s Wall-E. In fact, “E.T., but starring Wall-E” would be a pretty accurate elevator pitch for this movie.
Another thing I noticed this time around, that completely went over my head as a kid, is how many of the jokes are decidedly more adult than anything I’d have expected from a PG movie, even a mid-80s one. Fisher Stevens goes into graphic detail in some of his sex-related tangents, and Johnny Five is actually quite graphic in some of his sex-related dialog, Number Five walks (rolls?) in on Stephanie while she’s in the bathtub and makes what could be described as a lewd comment. There’s even a scene where an elderly couple is pulled over by the security forces looking for Johnny Five, and the husband worries about the bag of weed in the glove box.
While there’s only one curse word, it’s used pretty effectively (I laughed, at least), and there’s also a scene where Guttenberg’s Crosby has a robotic hand flip off Fisher Stevens in their lab. I also didn’t read the guy that Stephanie chases off with the baseball bat as explicitly an abusive ex until this viewing, which makes his comeuppance at the end that much better, though I wished she could have participated in it a bit more than she did. I’m pretty sure that the movie would have gotten a PG-13 if released today. I’m assuming that it was an artifact of the PG-13 rating being so new at the time (it was only about two years old at the time). They hadn’t quite figured out what the differentiation would be yet.
Overall, I’d say that, brownface aside, the movie holds up pretty well. The masterful animatronics work plays a big part in that, and there’s actually a fair bit that’s ahead of its time in a way (a food truck in Portland, OR; an Indian programmer at a time when Japan, not India, was seen as the big tech threat to American jobs). It certainly holds up better than The Last Starfighter. If you can get past the really unfortunate decisions regarding Fisher Stevens’s character, I’d say it’s worth a look if you are in the mood for a sci-fi comedy.
Rewatch: B-/B, depending on how much you can tolerate Fisher Stevens
*Since I’ve brought that up twice now, I guess I should explain. Carleton College, where I got my Bachelor’s degree, abolished its Greek system decades ago. However, it retained the off-campus houses that once held the various fraternities, and instead rents them out to student organizations on a yearly basis, provided that they run public activities to promote their mission statement. The Carleton Science Fiction Alliance has had the same house, Benton House, since the 1990s. It houses a number of students, has a large library of genre books and DVDs, and runs regular showings of TV shows and movies every week of the term. While I never lived there myself, I spent about 80% of my free time there while I was going to school at Carleton.