Times Staff Writer

“Short Circuit” (citywide) asks us to imagine a runaway robot plunging off a bridge and landing on the lunch wagon of an antinuke animal lover (Ally Sheedy), who initially mistakes her unexpected visitor as a creature from outer space. “I knew they’d pick me. I just knew it,” enthuses Sheedy.

To be sure, the robot, called Number Five, isn’t just any ordinary robot. At a demonstration for military-industrial complex types, Number Five is zapped by a bolt of lightning during a thundershower. Before you can say “Frankenstein’s Monster,” he has come alive and escaped. To his young genius creator Steve Guttenberg--and especially his frazzled boss Austin Pendleton--Number Five has merely short-circuited but could be dangerous, thanks to the powerful laser beam with which he is armed. But the robot insists, “Life is not a malfunction.”

Written by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson as part of a UCLA Extension screenwriting course, “Short Circuit” is nothing if not derivative. Yet for all his echoes of E.T., R2D2 and other Lucas/Spielberg creatures, Number Five is appealing in his own right, thanks to his wistful, spindly design by Syd Mead and a funny catch-in-the-throat voice supplied by Tim Blaney.


However, having succeeded at a persuasive, endearing anthropomorphosis, the film makers have come up with only a so-so picture to go with it. All that was really needed to make “Short Circuit” a more satisfying experience was to up the script a couple of notches and apply a lighter touch to it. Unfortunately, director John Badham and his fledgling writers have taken a very broad, heavy-handed approach.

Examples: Sheedy’s quaint abode is crawling with so many kittens that it would be a more appropriate home to a pathetic elderly recluse than to a vibrant young woman. And, as Pendleton’s gung-ho security chief, G. W. Bailey has been asked to portray such an insistently aggressive, hot-headed war-mongering type that he soon becomes tiresome.

Worse yet is Fisher Stevens as Guttenberg’s Asian sidekick, whose steady stream of malapropisms progress from the tedious to the offensive. Happier moments include Number Five copying John Travolta’s moves on the dance floor as he watches “Saturday Night Fever.” Luckily, Sheedy and Guttenberg (soon won over by Number Five and Sheedy) are likable, as they usually are, but “Short Circuit” (rated PG for some four-letter words) fizzles when it should sizzle.

‘SHORT CIRCUIT’ A Tri-Star/PSO release. Executive producers Mark Damon, John Hyde. Producers David Foster, Lawrence Turman. Co-producer Dennis Jones. Director John Badham. Screenplay S. S. Wilson, Brent Maddock. Camera Nick McLean. Music David Shire. Art director Dianne Wager. Visual consultant Philip Harrison. Robot designer Syd Mead. Robots engineered and realized by Eric Allard. Supervising producer/2nd unit director Gregg Champion. 2nd unit camera John Connor. Special visual effects by Dream Quest Images. Assoc. producers Gary Foster, Dana Satler. Stunt coordinator Walter Scott. Film editor Frank Morriss. With Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, Fisher Stevens, Austin Pendleton, G. W. Bailey, Brian McNamara, Tim Blaney.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).