Short Circuit (1986)

short circuit

“With excitement like this, who is needing enemas?”

The Scoop: 1986 PG, directed by John Badham and starring Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens

Tagline: Life is not a malfunction

Summary Capsule: Fearsome robot uses his freakish sentience for dancing like Travolta and emulating the Three Stooges while being pursued by Police Academy Alumni


Sue’s rating: Guttengreat!

Sue’s review: I’m sure you’ve all seen the television commercials. No matter how much we try to delude ourselves, no matter how hard we try to avoid the harsh reality, no matter how frantically we stick our fingers in our ears and scream lalalala at the top of our stubbornly in-denial voices, the sad fact is that every home -Every Home!- contains mold. (Personally, I keep most of mine in anonymous foil wrappers in the refrigerator.) This endemic permeation is very similar to the situation back in the eighties in which practically every comedy film contained Steve Guttenberg.

Not that I’m intentionally dissing Steve, or mold for that matter — yeast is good stuff and I certainly enjoy mushrooms on my pizza — but there is a certain quality of Guttenbergocity in the film industry of the time that does lend itself to this comparison. And much like Penicillium goes with an icky yellow color Guttenberg always seemed to go hand in hand with my favorite Korean War mechanic, G.W. Baily. (But not in an unmanly way or anything like that.) Be warned, the dynamic duo is at it again, sparring in typical Police Academy fashion.

But really this movie isn’t about them, is it? No it isn’t.

Intended as marital aids, but converted into laser wielding machines of annihilation (not nearly the contradiction it seems, which you’ll know if you ever went to marital counseling) the SAINT (Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport) Robots, numbered 1 through 5 respectively, are the latest and greatest thing to hit the military market since olive drab. After an impressive demonstration in which the robots collaborate on destroying a large tank and a few dozen hapless mannequins, (they also mix a mean martini) all that seems to be left is to pack them in boxes (maybe even boxes with cow patterns!) and ship them off to kick the butt of anyone who dares to use the Cyrillic alphabet. Remember, this was during the Reagan era.

However, before UPS can work its delivery magic, good ol’ Number Five gets hit by some very convenient lightning whilst recharging on a big ol’ generator, and suddenly becomes really interested in seductively swaying extension cords and butterflies and homeopathy and stuff. Overcome with curiosity and impeccable comedic timing, Number Five inadvertantly leaves home sweet pseudo-military-installation, and finds himself in the tender squeaking care of animal hoarder Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), who should be grateful that Animal Cops wouldn’t air for another few decades, because they’d raid her little zoo in a heartbeat.

The rest of Short Circuit follows the adventures of Number Five as he progresses from fledgling self-aware infancy to fully mature couch-potato, remote-control wielding slackerdom in the best human tradition, all while being pursued by two inept scientists in a truck, a redneck in a Camaro and a battalion or two of military rental goons with heavy artillery. The latter are frothingly led by the aforementioned G.W. Baily as the you-just-know-they’re-going-to-make-the-obvious-joke-eventually Shroeder.

There’s dancing too. Saturday Night Fever anyone? No? Sure? Okay.

Eventually the inept scientists catch up to the fugitive Five, with help, and are forced to admit that yes, Number Five is alive.

Now all this led to an interesting question that quite honestly I didn’t have a definitive answer to. So instead of using an encyclopedia or anything practical like that, I took a household poll.

What is sentience?

According to my son, three or more sentiences make up a paragraph, thus indicating that either I need some work on my enunciation or, more likely, he needs a Q-tip. My daughter, busily creating a global consortium of some sort in her room, (why oh why did I let her have a phone?) remains unavailable for comment. My dog, however, indicated that sentience is self-awareness, ego and the ability to formulate complex thoughts about personal choice and self-expression. He communicated this by giving me a very meaningful look when I changed the channel from the Westminster Dog Show, JUST when they were bringing out the little fluffy kickdogs that he so enjoys watching. Then he ambled off to dream of opposable thumbs and sweet household anarchy.

[Note: I actually have two dogs, but the second one has the brain power of a flushed guppy, so I didn’t ask her for fear she’d get all stressed out and widdle on the carpet.]

Okay, go ahead and laugh, but according to Guttenberg’s “Newton Crosby, Ph.D.”, true sentience can only be definitively proven by an ability to spontaneously laugh at a poorly told joke about a minister, a priest and a rabbi. Personally I think my dog’s opinion on the subject is more logical because by Crosby’s definition, a deranged robot is more “alive” than I am. And, in fact, more alive than most of my friends. But not my Dad. Dad’s got a million of ’em. Trust me.

Short Circuit is a cute movie, and except for the obligatory profanity that seems to be the norm in 80’s comedic fare (I can’t imagine why), it’s relatively family friendly. I’m pretty sure my offspring (well attuned to my personal phobia about inadvertently exposing them to cinematic obscenity) only stuck their fingers in their ears and chorused, “We didn’t hear him say that word, Mom!”, three or four times during the course of the movie. They say it very convincingly really. Very virtuously. Considering that I know from reliable sources that they’re both conversationally fluent, I have to give them props for their acting ability, if not their honesty.

Anyway, Short Circuit is charming in its dated 80’s way. There are some cute one liners, mostly delivered by heavily accented and slang mangling co-pilot geek, Ben Jabituya (Fisher Stevens) some creative action and a lovely homage to the Three Stooges. And any robot with expressive eyebrows is worth checking out.

Just watch out for mold. It’s everywhere!


Justin’s rating: Mahoney and The Plague ride to the rescue!

Justin’s review: Golly, robots are cool, aren’t they? What, you young whippersnappers have never heard of the thingamabobbers? Well that is a gosh-darn shame! Pull up a stool and listen as I smoke my pipe and remember the days of yore.

For some reason, robots were all the hot stuff in the 80’s. Transformers hooked kids with transforming robot toys and a fairly cool show and film. Nintendo, when promoting its original NES game system, even tried to package in an external robot that cleverly did nothing except break down repeatedly. And of course, robots were everywhere in movies — Space Camp, Revenge of the Nerds, Blade Runner, Empire Strikes Back, Batteries Not Included. Robots ruled the roost, and there virtually wasn’t anything they couldn’t do… except stay in the public obsession. Come the 90’s, we got the internet and everyone chose downloadable pornography over keeping the fires of modern robotics flickering.

Short Circuit is maybe the most famous robot-centered flick, with its sentient Number Five nudging E.T. out of the running for the Annual Cute Awards. It’s not a bad film, although there is a massive camp of barbarians out there who froth about nonsensical plot points, heavy-handed “Killing Is Bad” messages, and Steve Guttenberg. That’s okay if you hate it, but not as much okay if you still use bark instead of Charmin to wipe yourself clean. Filthy barbarian horde.

A family-pleasing silly romp, Short Circuit teeters between comedy and the excitement of several people driving stocky vans up and down roads. As the film opens, naïve Nova Industries is putting the cap on their new project of robotic warriors who supposedly would hand-carry nuclear weapons into enemy cities and detonate them. Now, as much as I like this film and am forgiving of many of its faults, this is an idea so half-baked that its logic just oozes around in the pan all drippy-like. Using a 45-mph robot to hand-deliver a nuclear weapon is perhaps the slowest and most vulnerable way you could come up with to do so, unless you entrusted a highly-trained toddler to mix and throw plutonium at the enemy. These robots are far from invincible, as the film demonstrates, and it’s kind of assumed that they’re not going to last through the nuclear blast, so you effectively have an expendable $11 million FedEx courier.

Anyway. Steve Guttenberg is also some sort of “genius” at robots, but not with humans, which explains his career.

Struck by lightning, Number Five escapes, Nova chases, an animal-loving, anti-military, environmentalist (Ally Sheedy) ends up as the robot’s new remedial teacher, and we all discover that newly alive life forms like the Three Stooges. Once armed with “input”, Number Five becomes a jive-talking, pop culture-quoting machine with a deadly laser and a Swiss army knife appendage.

What makes Short Circuit a party pleaser, aside from about nine instances of playing Clare’s favorite “Who’s Johnny?” by El DeBarge, is the nifty factor of the robotic tricks they do, and the quotable comedy that both Number Five and Guttenberg’s assistant Ben (Fisher Stevens) spout constantly. Hey, I’m a simple man, and if it takes someone constantly misquoting colloquialisms to make me laugh, then so be it, young Jedi. I’m not picky.

Much, much better than the sequel, Short Circuit is a lasting testament to the gadget-oriented ’80s and the ability to make pretty much anything, from misshapen alien heads to mechanical parts, seem adorably cute.

Yes!  Yes!  KILL THEM ALL!  And look technologically awesome while doing it!
Yes! Yes! KILL THEM ALL! And look awesome while doing so!


  • John Travolta’s got nothing on Number Five.
  • Product placement for Charmin toilet paper or cultural icon? You be the judge.
  • Number Five’s habit of stringing synonyms together until he finds the right word.
  • Grasshoppers and robots make really bad playmates.
  • What the cute elderly couple has hidden in their glove compartment.
  • Catering trucks don’t corner well at high speeds.
  • I’ve always loved the opening sequence of putting together number five
  • The laser effects are pretty cool
  • Oh the mannequins! Oh the humanity!
  • How are these robots adaptable to jungles? They have robotic vines?
  • Ah. The first robotic bartenders.
  • Howard doesn’t know how to triangulate his position
  • How can you drive those military cars? You can’t see squat outside the windows!
  • Number five is an $11 million thesaurus
  • You should call someone a “warmonger” today, trust me
  • Let’s all cry over the grasshopper and the heavy lesson of death
  • Originally Short Circuit was intended to be a much darker film with Number Five as an evil and relentless robot in the best Terminator tradition. Later on they decided to make it a comedy.

Groovy Quotes

Ben: I am thinking she is a virgin. Or at least she used to be.

Ben: With excitement like this, who is needing enemas?

Stephanie: Life is NOT a malfunction!

Ben: Newton, we are wasting valueless time here!

Number Five: Malfunction. Need input.

Ben: I am standing here beside myself.

Duke (Driving a truck with a suddenly conscious and rather unhappy robot in the back): Will it kill me if I stop?
Ben: Who is to say?
Duke: Will it kill me if I don’t stop?
Ben: Again I am shrugging.
Duke: I’m stopping.

Number Five: Hey Laserlips! Your momma was a snowblower!

Howard: What if it goes out and melts a busload of nuns! How would you like to write the headline on that one?
Ben: Nun soup?

Ben: I have seen some strange, bizarre drivers, but you – You will be awarded a cake.

Number Five: Beautiful animal! Canine! Dog! Mutt.

Frank: How robot, me friend.
Stephanie: Talk computer, not Apache.

Number Five: Disassemble?
Stephanie: Yes! Disassemble all over the place!

Ben: Goodbye crazy lady! I enjoyed repeatedly throwing you to the ground.

Number Five: Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?

Ben: Gag me with a fork, sir.

Howard: Don’t tell me its laser is still armed?
Ben: Bimbo!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Short Circuit 2
  • Batteries Not Included
  • Police Academy

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