Life Is NOT A Malfunction: Short Circuit (1986)

I am wholly aware that there are some incredibly absurd movies that made their self aware during the 1980's, indeed, I have even gone so far as to review many of them, almost always with loving admiration or an unhealthy attachment, especially if said films involve things like cocaine smuggling ninjas or satellite based aliens consuming orgy minded suburban parents.  These movies were weird and did not necessarily acquire anything beyond the obvious cult status associated, however, Short Circuit is a film that has managed to retains most of its respect and was decidedly successful upon its initial release could out do every other film in its notes of the absurd.  Indeed, Short Circuit is perhaps the most bizarre film to come from the 80's not in that it exists alone, but that it was so successful.  Between some wonderful smirking by eternal heartthrob The Gutt, one of the more curious performances of Ally Sheedy's career one can pick apart its obvious attractions.  Everything else is completely an enigma though, notably the bizarrely Orientalist spin on the major foreign character within the film, not to mention a decidedly confusing and ethically problematic take on robotics, sentience and human bonding.  I assume this film is intended to be comedic, however, I could not begin to unpack the ramifications and implications of approaching such movie with an awareness that it is chuckling at such deeply social woes.  In contrast to Ally Sheedy's involvement in say WarGames, one almost thinks that Short Circuit is in bad taste, and I would certainly make this claim were it made in any other year than 1986.  It is in this unabashed push towards complete absurdity that one is able to truly appreciate Short Circuit, because what one paper should come off as complete and irreverent politically incorrect satire manages to take on a knowing level of self-awareness, wherein each glance of humor on the part of Steve Guttenberg and moment pun-infested dialogue manages to say everything about an era where excess and decadence were simply a fact and any point of lack or oppression was ignored or made to be a point of frustration.  In the very choice to ignore any palpable reality Short Circuit reconsiders the ability and execution of satire.  It is bad, it is wildly problematic, but it is also delightful.

Short Circuit focuses on the American governments most recent attempts at launching a series of former Cold War robots, known collectively as the S.A.I.N.T. program, as service industry robots.  This appears to be an ideal situation as the precision and focus affords the robots to do both very general tasks as well as specific, detailed endeavors.  Yet, when an intense lighting storm hits the factories, one robot is electrocuted a la Frankenstein and breaks free from the space.  In doing so, the war division of the government goes wild fearing that the number five division of the robot will destroy everything in its path, as the lightning resulted in an overriding of its circuits and reverting to its former Cold War programing.  To make matters worse the robot is equipped with a laser capable of destroying any item nearly instantaneously.  The robot becomes a point of fascination for its creator Dr. Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) who sees this "glitch" as a movement towards a higher degree of sentience, particularly with Number 5 rewires his own switchboard to assure his livelihood.  Eventually, Number 5 travels far enough to meet with food truck entrepreneur and lively twenty something Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy) who immediately assumes the robot to be a form of extraterrestrial life, becoming visibly upset when it proves to be the far less exciting government weapon of mass destruction.  Yet, realizing that Number 5 truly desires to become "alive" Stephanie takes it upon herself to teach and train Number 5 while also helping to avoid his own disassembly, or, in human terms, death.  All the while, Dr. Crosby and his wise-cracking Indian assistant Ben (Fisher Stevens) attempt to track down Number 5 with the most advance positioning technology possible.  Eventually, they are able to track down the robot and discover him deep in training with Stephanie, as well as attached in a manner that is noticeably more than platonic.  However, Crosby and Ben realize that Number 5 is indeed advanced and capable of self-control, so much so that when the government eventually attacks Number 5 it proves to be a decoy created by the very robot who has become hyper-sentient.  The film closes with Number 5 assigning itself with the name Johnny 5 and becoming the pal of Crosby, Ben and Stephanie, assumedly planning on undertaking a series of new journeys, a fact shown in the multiple sequels that followed.

I am currently pinpointing my research interests within the field of film studies and, as I have noted earlier, this includes South Korean cinema.  However, realizing that just having a regional focus does not entirely suffice for the deeper I delve into school, I have decided to also focus on the ways in which gendering and body politics emerge within films about beings that are non theoretically human, including things like cyborgs, robots and dolls which become sentient.  As such, much to my surprise and elation, Short Circuit very much fits within this new vein of research, especially in regards to the gendering of Johnny 5, who moves from being a purely servile non-human other to that of a war based threat to eventually being a thing of fraternal and pseudo-sexual interest to at least two characters in the film.  In theory, Johnny 5 should not be a figure with a specific gender, but it is rather clear from the onset that viewers are supposed to define him as masculine, whether it be a result of his phallic like laser or his male-inclined vocal pattern, his gender is fixated within the masculine, making its creation by Dr. Crosby and the American government all the more ethically curious.  Indeed, his very war like identity suggests an entrenched notion of war as sexual aggression wherein each element of warfare finds its ties to the male phallic privilege, perhaps most famously explored in Kubrick's uproariously funny Dr. Strangelove.  Here it is becomes more heady intellectually, because if Johnny 5 is indeed a phallic extension of the government, he too is one that is anthropomorphized, suggesting a desire that war not only be a sexual act, but one that in the process "gives birth" to new entities that are vaguely human but still less than in the important factors.  The levels of control and privilege that emerge in such a scenario are complex and fascinating and could certainly extend on to consider other films within this genre.  The fact that Stephanie has a pseudo-romantic encounter with Johnny 5 takes on a reverse-Pygmallion element, although she is not the creator so again it is a bit more confusing.  There are also a ton of ways in which to consider how gender is performed and how a viewer is to understand that Johnny is supposed to be masculine, all tying to an assumption that a non-human body could still exist within a gendered dichotomy.  It is also no small coincidence that Wall-E is clearly based on Johnny 5.

Key Scene:  Johnny 5's quest for knowledge through reading the encyclopedia from front to end is both hilarious and deeply curious from an ethical standpoint and is dealt with in a near perfect way.

This is a solid rental through and through, although it is cheap enough on DVD that buying it might prove equally inexpensive.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review, Travis :) I remember watching this (and it's sequel) back in the late 80s. By the way I have given you a Sunshine Award http://iblamemovies.blogspot.ca/2013/11/an-award.html Keep up the great work with your blog! :)