Is it a symbol of over-mechanization that our movies now sentimentalize robots and computers, instead of making them monsters, like HAL-9000 or the Golem? In a cock-eyed way, turning cyborgs into cute little funny-bunnies and elf equivalents lets movie makers celebrate the technology that makes them powerful, while complaining that it isn't always human enough.
That's a leading theme of "Short Circuit," and also of its sequel, "Short Circuit 2" (citywide). Here, the most winsome automaton of them all, Number Five, a.k.a. Johnny--a military robot who came alive and went benignly amok after an over-juiced generator zapped him during a thunderstorm--is set loose in the big city: Toronto, disguised as a nameless U.S. metropolis. There, civilization--represented by assorted slimy hustlers, callous businessmen and sadistic gangsters--tries to grind his gears down.
In "Short Circuit," the evil military-industrial complex tried its damnedest to kill this sweet little runaway robot--who only wanted to hang out with his pals, smell the roses, watch the Three Stooges on TV and get more "input" into his synapses. There, Number Five was sort of a couch potato's revenge: a mechanical good fairy stuffed with TV cliches and catch-phrases.
And the movie was a couch potato fantasy too: "E.T.," "WarGames" and "Star Wars," spiced up with car crashes, dirty jokes, TV trivia and a toy merchandising tie-in. You can see why agents and studio executives went crazy over it. Contrived in a UCLA class by then-students Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, the original script--which isn't all that good--must have seemed like marketer's heaven.
Wilson and Maddock have improved considerably here. They're just as derivative and glib, but more thoughtful. Their construction is more deft, their dialogue is better, and they make Number Five come more alive.
He still spouts TV jibber-jabber, but he's more of a chromium Candide, zipping along in his yearning, hunched-over posture, his metallic shutters fluttering over dreamy blue headlights.
Number Five--who sometimes looks like a blissful, praying Minolta on a wheeled tripod--is among the most delicate of robots, even more than tart C-3PO in "Star Wars." And that delicacy may be the reason both "Circuits" dwell so lingeringly on the moments when he seemingly gets battered or destroyed irreparably.
In "Circuit 2," there's a human Candide to match him. Eager-beaver Indian scientist Ben Jahrvi (Fisher Stevens) makes a deal with a scrumptious toy executive (Cynthia Gibb) to deliver tiny toy copies of Number Five.
Through some predictable machinations, Ben picks up two partners: street scrambler Fred
Ritter (Michael McKean, who has a great hustler's grin and delivers the film's best performance) and mass production expert Number Five himself. Later, all of them are bedeviled by a band of brutal bank robbers, who just want to sneer, steal, lie and smash everything up.
Ben Jahrvi was a pretty annoying character in "Short Circuit." No one ever corrected his dopey malapropisms and at times he seemed like some bad Bengali equivalent of the Czech swingers of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd.
But he's more vulnerable and affecting here; Stevens surmounts the dialect humor. The similarities and links between Ben and Johnny--and the contrast between them and the affable shark, Ritter--make a more effective mix.
In "Short Circuit," director John Badham seemed to be handling material that was beneath him. But the director here, Kenneth Johnson, comes from TV--he did "The Bionic Woman" and "The Six Million Dollar Man"--and he may have a sharper affinity for kitsch. Johnson does a smoothly paced, vigorous job, keeps his camera moving, his actors lively. He doesn't condescend to the bad gags.
There's nothing really wrong with this movie. It's a pleasantly slick, well-tooled little fairy tale without much real character or substance, a PG special that some adults should avoid strenuously, but that children should like. It rolls along, doing its job so efficiently and coyly that sometimes it seems like a winking, flirtatious robot itself.
But the mixture of sentimentality and mechanization can be unsettling. Number Five--who gets his speech patterns, jargon and knowledge from his voracious speed reading and TV-watching--seems, here as before, to have stumbled into a huge, never-ending sitcom: a TV world that alternately trashes him and blisses him out.
Perhaps he's missed his calling. With a perspective and omnivorous tastes like that, this adorable robot shouldn't be making toys. He should be working as a network program executive.
'SHORT CIRCUIT 2'
A Tri-Star release of a Turman-Foster Co. production. Producers David Foster, Lawrence Turman, Gary Foster. Director Kenneth Johnson. Script S. S. Wilson, Brent Maddock. Music Charles Fox. Editor Conrad Buff. Production design Bill Brodie. Camera John McPherson. With Fisher Stevens, Michael McKean, Cynthia Gibb, Jack Weston, Tim Blaney.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).