Short Circuit is the kind of wholesome family film that positively invites itself to be scooped up and cuddled, so to speak – an impressive achievement considering its opening scene depicts state-of-the-art (for the Eighties) military robots casually obliterating a convoy of military vehicles as part of a demonstration exercise, its crash-dummy inhabitants unambiguously left smouldering in a heap.
Underlining the assured nature of the film’s moral compass is the robots’ designer, genius/slacker extraordinare Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg), disillusioned with the hi-jacking of his work by bulldog security general Captain Skroeder (GW Bailey), having originally envisaged more peaceful applications for his work. One fateful lightening strike later, however, and the Number 5 model (voiced by Tim Blaney) apparently develops a mind of his own and escapes, eventually landing at the home of the free-spirited Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), where he learns about the world, human life etc in a manner that would seem Disney esque – if this was a Disney film.
Short Circuit is clearly a product of its time, whether because of its unavowed optimism regarding new technology (compare and contrast its attitude to now, where every other feature is a post-apocalyptic melodrama or Promethean cautionary tale of some sort), its inclusion of Eighties darlings Guttenberg and Sheedy and its make-love-not-war mantra. However, its age also becomes evident via the character of Newton’s Indian assistant, Ben Jabituya. Actor Fisher Stevens (who is white) ‘browned-up’ for the role, which involved him talking in a heavily accented Indian accent, bumbling and mangling the English language. In all essentials he is Apu from The Simpsons, minus the knowing irony, set up as the butt of the jokes, and this portrayal makes for horribly uncomfortable viewing.
Coupled with some wide-eyed over-acting (especially from Sheedy), some truly hair-yankingly frustrating displays of decision-making and the increasingly annoying behaviour of Johnny Five, and a contemporary viewing can have the capacity to shatter any illusions you might have had about how lovely Short Circuit was, before you grew up and discovered what the world was really about – rather like travelling back in time and putting your foot through your younger self’s eighth birthday cake.
Still, the sparing use of special effects means it still holds up reasonably well today, and Guttenberg is an entertaining enough lead to prevent the film from being weighed down by its very own C-3PO and Jar Jar Binks. To close, since we’re looking at an Eighties flick through a modern prism, it only seems fair to paraphrase a modern perspective to justify its now-evident failings: “It was acceptable in the Eighties/It was acceptable at the time.” We couldn’t agree more, Calvin Harris. But just this once.