1986 in Film – Short Circuit

Release Date: May 9th
Box Office: $40,769,650

And so we say hello to Steve Gutenberg once more, this time outside of the racy comedies and this time in a family film that tackled that most popular of the 80s tropes: the misunderstood alien/robot/whatever that makes a friend whilst on the run from the authorities.

E.T (1982), basically.

Cynical? Maybe but that story of the innocent creature with a pal is seen again and again, certainly it was there before E.T. however it was the success of that film that made it a family genre staple. Combo that with the exploding home video market that was a haven for cheap films that were cheap knock offs of the blockbusters and it was truly a magical time.

Anyway. This time we have a robot, Johnny 5, one of several military robots built by Steve Gutenberg for his employers, NOVA Corp. During a demonstration of the robots, one of them gets hit by lightning which, wouldn’t you know it, gives the robot sentience.

So far so simple, and it is really. It’s almost designed to be an inoffensive nice film which is succeeds at, mainly thanks to Johnny 5.

This film ends up being a pretty good advert for practical special effects. It certainly helps that Syd Mead, he of Blade Runner (1982) fame and other classics, was brought into design Johnny 5. And a great design he it too because he looks plausible, the fact that he was built and could operate as he does in the film (possibly short of jumping and firing a laser cannon) makes it much more real. To become a grizzled moany old man for a second, these days he would probably be a mainly CG creation which despite the continuing advances in the field still doesn’t quite look real.

The fact that Johnny 5 is running around the set helps the actors interacting with him. He was operated by remote with puppeteers wearing a suit over their upper body; when they moved their arms so would Johnny 5. They would also voice Johnny in real time on the set all of which works to make him a real thing which helps sell the reality of the film to the audience.

This is good because most of the money was spent on the robot not leaving much for the rest of the film. This probably explains why the story is a pretty straightforward affair; Guttenberg delivers his usual level of performance whilst Brat Pack regular Ally Sheedy is the love interest. They don’t exactly set the film on fire, Guttenberg is probably miscast as the withdrawn obsessed scientist which doesn’t help proceedings.

That feels like a studio decision, but other that that director John Badham doesn’t really put a foot wrong. His previous big hit film was WarGames (1983), another film about technology and the Cold War, which makes Short Circuit a nice companion piece. Whilst WarGames deals with the then real threat of nuclear war and Mutually Assured Destruction, Short Circuit is a much more optimistic affair. Here a weapon designed to kill comes to life and only wants to learn. Rather than fulfilling his violent destiny he chooses pacifism in order to survive.

Of course, if you want a really good film about a killer robot that goes against its nature then wait about ten years or so till we get to the review for The Iron Giant (1999).

Badham would go on to the same kind of middle of the road films: nothing that amazing but nothing terrible either. The writers from the film, S S Wilson and Brent Maddock, would return to the same well for batteries not included (1987) before hitting a proper home run with Tremors (1990) as well as coming up Short Circuit 2 (1988), one of those rare things of a sequel superior to the first film.

Short Circuit remains a good film with a performance from a practical special effect that probably outshines both leads.

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