Short Circuit is a 1986 US comic science fiction film directed by John Badham and written by S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. The film’s plot centers upon an experimental military robot that is struck by lightning and gains a more humanlike intelligence, with which it embarks to explore its new state. Short Circuit stars Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, Fisher Stevens, Austin Pendleton and G. W. Bailey, with Tim Blaney as the voice of the robot named “Johnny 5”. A sequel, Short Circuit 2, was released in 1988.
NOVA Laboratory robotics experts Newton Crosby and Ben Jabituya developed several prototype robots called S.A.I.N.T. (Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport) for the U.S. military to use in Cold War operations, though Crosby and Ben would rather seek peaceful applications of the robots. After a live demonstration for the military, one of the units, S.A.I.N.T. number 5, is struck by lightning arcing through the lab’s power grid. This scrambles its programming and makes it sentient. It then escapes the NOVA facility.
The robot ends up in Astoria, Oregon, and is found by Stephanie Speck, an animal care-giver, who mistakes him for an alien. She takes the robot to her home, where she provides him with “input” in the form of visual and verbal stimuli, allowing the robot to improve its language skills, and eventually names itself “robot number 5”, being the fifth prototype produced. Stephanie continues to help the curious Number 5 robot learn about the world. She eventually discovers that Number 5 was built by NOVA, and contacts them about the lost robot. Nova’s CEO, Dr. Howard Marner, orders Crosby and Ben to recover him, so they can disassemble and rebuild him. While waiting for NOVA to arrive, Number 5 learns about death when he accidentally crushes a grasshopper, and concludes that if NOVA disassembles him, he will die, and escapes in Stephanie’s truck. However, NOVA uses a tracking device on Number 5 to corner him and deactivate the robot for return to the facility. During transport, Number 5 is able to reactivate himself and remove the tracking device, and flees back to Stephanie.
Because of these unusual actions, Crosby tries to convince Howard that Number 5 may be sentient, but Howard refuses to believe it. Instead, Howard sends their security chief Captain Skroeder and three other S.A.I.N.T. prototypes to recapture Number 5. Number 5 is able to outwit the other robots by reprogramming them to act as The Three Stooges, and escapes. Taking a NOVA van with spare robot parts, Crosby finds Number 5 with Stephanie, and Number 5 is able to convince Crosby of his sentience. They find that Skroeder has called in the United States Army to capture Number 5. To protect Crosby and Stephanie, Number 5 leads the Army away from them and appears to be destroyed in a firefight. Howard laments the loss of the prototype and dismisses Skroeder, while Crosby resigns from NOVA, and drives away with Stephanie in the NOVA van. They are surprised to discover that Number 5 had hidden himself under the van, having assembled a decoy Number 5 from spare parts to confuse the others. Crosby decides to take Number 5 to his father’s secluded Montana ranch where there will be lots of “input” for the robot, and Stephanie agrees to come with them. As they drive off, Number 5 asserts that his name should now be “Johnny 5” based on the song “Who’s Johnny” playing on the van’s radio.
- Tim Blaney as Johnny 5 (voice)
- Ally Sheedy as Stephanie Speck, who befriends Johnny 5
- Steve Guttenberg as Newton Crosby, Ph.D., the designer of the prototypes
- Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya, Newton’s assistant (in Short Circuit 2 his name is Benjamin Jahveri)
- Austin Pendleton as Dr. Howard Marner, President of Nova Robotics
- G. W. Bailey as Captain Skroeder
- Brian McNamara as Frank, Stephanie’s abusive ex-boyfriend
- Marvin J. McIntyre as Duke, one of Nova’s security officers
- John Garber as Otis
- Penny Santon as Mrs. Cepeda, Stephanie’s housekeeper
- Vernon Weddle as General Washburne
- Barbara Tarbuck as Senator Mills
- John Badham as Cameraman (uncredited)
- Jack Angel as Number 1 (voice)
- Don Messick as Number 3 (voice)
- Cam Clarke as Number 2 (voice)
This film was conceived after the producers distributed an educational video about a robot to various colleges. Studying other films with a prominent robot cast (like the Star Wars series) for inspiration, they decided to question human reactions to a ‘living’ robot, on the premise that no one would initially believe its sentience.
According to the commentary in the DVD, Number 5 was the most expensive part of the film, requiring several different versions to be made for different sequences. Almost everything else in the film was relatively inexpensive, allowing them to allocate as much money as they needed for the robot character. Number 5 was designed by Syd Mead, the “visual futurist” famous for his work on Blade Runner and Tron.
Mead’s design was greatly influenced by the sketches of Eric Allard, the Robotics Supervisor credited for “realizing” the robots. John Badham named Eric “the most valuable player” on the film.
Most of the arm movements of Number 5 were controlled by a “telemetry suit”, carried on the puppeteer’s upper torso. Each joint in the suit had a separate sensor, allowing the puppeteer’s arm and hand movements to be transferred directly to the machine. He was also voiced in real-time by his puppeteer, the director believing that it provided for a more realistic interaction between the robot and the other actors than putting in his voice in post-production, although a few of his lines were re-dubbed later.
During Stephanie’s impromptu news interview, director John Badham makes a cameo appearance as the news cameraman.
The sequence in the film depicting Number 5 watching the movie Saturday Night Fever (and imitating John Travolta’s dance moves) is an in-joke: Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit were both directed by John Badham.
Fisher Stevens said that when he was originally hired to play Ben Jabituya, the character was not intended to be Indian. Stevens was fired and replaced by Bronson Pinchot at one point, but then Pinchot left to do the sitcom Perfect Strangers, and Stevens was rehired. To portray the role he had to grow a beard, dye his hair black, darken his skin with makeup, turn his blue eyes brown with contact lenses, speak with an East Indian accent and “walk hunched over like a cricket player.” In 2015, Aziz Ansari had a cordial discussion with Stevens over the role, with Ansari saying he did not view Stevens as a bad guy or someone who played Ben as a tired stereotype, and Stevens saying (with Ansari’s agreement) that a present-day version of the role would definitely be played by an actor who had an Indian/South Asian background.
In 2009, Austin Pendleton, who had gone to college with Short Circuit director John Badham, stated “some stuff was cut out of my part in [Short Circuit]. And also the two leading roles were cast with really talented, attractive people who were not right for the parts. [The] script was just heartbreakingly beautiful to read. And now it’s a nice little slightly bland kids’ movie. Nothing exactly wrong with it. Those two people who are in the leads are good, very likeable, easy-to-work-with people, and have done some good work; they just weren’t those people that were written in the script. And I said to John when it was about to open, ‘Why did you cast them?’ And he said, ‘That was what the studio insisted on.’ And it sort of ended the discussion. I said, ‘Okay.’ The film kind of works, but again, it was going to have been quite a beautiful film.”
According to Pendleton, the role Steve Guttenberg ended up playing “was a person who could not relate to other human beings, so he poured all that into the creation of the robot. Well, Steve, he’s a lovely guy, and I think he’s talented… He had a wonderful kind of charisma. Very easy, but utterly social. He’s just so very engaging and open with people. He’s wonderful to be on a movie with… [But] he does not bring onscreen with him the problem that the character in that movie has… The perfect person for the role, 20 years earlier, would have been Dustin Hoffman. That thing that Dustin brought to The Graduate that a more affable actor would not have… A sense of utter alienation from everything around him.”
Although no soundtrack album was released at the time, El DeBarge had a chart hit with the single “Who’s Johnny (Theme from Short Circuit).”
In 2008 Varèse Sarabande issued David Shire’s score as part of their CD Club series of limited edition releases. The DeBarge song was not included or mentioned in the liner notes. The last three tracks are source music.
The booklet claims the end title song is not used in the film. It is, however, on the soundtrack. The finale mix and end title are combined into one track, but used separately in the film.
A video game developed by Ocean Software for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC was also made based on the film. It featured two parts: one arcade adventure where Johnny 5 had to escape from the lab, and one action part where Johnny 5 escapes across the countryside, avoiding soldiers, other robots, and animals.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a 58% rating from 36 reviews, and an average rating of 5.05/10 with the website’s consensus stating: “Amiable and good-natured but also shallow and predictable, Short Circuit is hardly as deep or emotionally resonant as E.T. — though Johnny Five makes for a charming robot protagonist.” On Metacritic it has a score of 50 out of 100 based on reviews from 12 critics, indicating “mixed or average reviews”. Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave it a grade A-.
Trade paper Variety wrote, “Short Circuit is a hip, sexless sci-fi sendup” and praised the writers “for some terrific dialog that would have been a lot less disarming if not for the winsome robot and Sheedy’s affection for it. Guttenberg plays his best goofy self.” In The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie, which has the clean, well-scrubbed look of an old Disney comedy, is nicely acted”. The Sun-Sentinel gave a good review, saying, “Number Five is the real star of this energetic film. Sheedy, Guttenberg and company are just supporting players.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated it 1.5 out of 4 four stars and called it “too cute for its own good”.
Short Circuit debuted at No. 1 in the US box office. It grossed a total of $40,697,761, ranking it 21st for 1986 in the United States; it performed slightly better than other 1986 hits like Pretty in Pink, The Fly, Three Amigos, Little Shop Of Horrors and About Last Night.
The sequel, Short Circuit 2, premiered in 1988. There was a script for a possible third film written in 1989 and rewritten in 1990, but it was found unsatisfactory by the producers, and the project was subsequently scrapped.
Johnny 5 would later appear in an episode of Home, voiced by Peter Greenwood, and in a short educational film, Hot Cars, Cold Facts, voiced by Russell Turner.
In April 2008, Variety reported that Dimension Films had acquired the rights to remake the original film. Dan Milano had been hired to write the script, and David Foster to produce it. Foster said that the robot’s appearance would not change. On October 27, 2009, it was announced that Steve Carr would direct the remake and that the film’s plot would involve a boy from a broken family befriending the Number 5 robot. Carr left the project and on August 4, 2011, Deadline Hollywood reported that Tim Hill would direct the reboot instead.