Archive Review: Short Circuit (1986) – 3.5/5 Stars

“Short Circuit” is one of those rare ’80s comedies that knows what it is. It delights in its tackiness, awkward jokes and poking fun at both the “tech movement” and Cold War dramas. It never gives off the sense that it’s trying to be something it’s not, staying fresh, funny and even laughing at itself.

Maybe the best way to put the filmmaker’s attitudes into perspective while making “Short Circuit” would be to mention that director John Badham not only made a much more serious Cold War adventure film in “War Games” a few years before, but the robot (No. 5 as he’s called) at one point imitates John Travolta’s dance moves in “Saturday Night Fever,” another Badham film. Badham even takes to making fun of his other work using “Short Circuit.”

Although Badham gets the credit for making No. 5 such a lovable character (with some help from fine voice acting in Tim Blaney), the writing team of Wilson and Maddock deserve a lot of credit for the film’s clever and amusing take on artificial life as well as the numerous jabs at Cold War America.

“Short Circuit” is about a top secret set of military robots designed by Newton (Steve Guttenberg of “Police Academy”) for the military supplier he works for called NOVA. When a lightning strike fries one of the robots, he ignores his programming and escapes the facility where he meets an animal-lover named Stephanie (Ally Sheedy of Badham’s “War Games”) who takes him in believing he’s an alien. When NOVA searches for No. 5, the robot soon develops the concept that if NOVA catches him, they will “disassemble” or “kill” him. The rest of the film No. 5 is on the run with the help of Stephanie and eventually Newton.

No. 5 is a crafty robot thanks to some brilliant writing. After soaking in hours of television, he drops clever catch phrases from westerns and other films including commercial jingles as he evades his captors and even other robots in what is a hysterical sequence. Wilson, Maddock and Badham realize what a truly unique character they have to play with and they utilize him to the fullest.

Admirably, everyone on this movie knows that the plot is immaterial and it’s all about watching to see what goofy stuff No. 5 will do next. Both Sheedy and Guttenberg just play to the robot, seeming to laugh whenever they have to interact with him. They understand it’s not about them at all and they just enjoy themselves while doing adequate acting. The only other role with any personality is Fisher Stevens as Ben, the unacknowledged Indian stereotype that loves women and butchering English phrases for comedic value. Funny, but it probably wouldn’t fly in the 21st Century.

It’s also worth knowing that this is not as much a family film. Kids will find No. 5 funny, but there’s a lot of questionable language including some sexual references. With the number of funny one-liners, “Short Circuit” is ripe for kids to repeat. Still, the comedy in this film is so much better than so many other ’80s movies because it recognizes that it’s goofy, which also makes the satire work better. Not Badham or anyone else tried too hard to make a quality movie and the result was that they got one.

3.5/5 Stars

Directed by: John Badham
Written by: S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy


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