Short Circuit (1986): Number 5 is Alive!

Is it me or does Number 5 the robot in Short Circuit look like a taller version of WallE? No wait E.T, right? Whatever we might think about John Badham’s Short Circuit as a film I feel like it has been largely forgotten relegated to the bargain bin of video stores, if video stores still existed. Interestingly, first in 2018 and again late in 2020 there were reports Short Circuit was about to get a new lease of life with a reboot for early 2022. Since then, online chatter has all but stopped. Personally, I’d rather they didn’t make Short Circuit 3 or Short Circuit 2.0. Frankly, the sequel in 1988 was bad enough, so why would you bother with a reboot when the charm of the original is rewarding enough, especially on its 35th anniversary this year.

Way back in 1986, TriStar Films was apparently inspired by the early success robots played in films like Star Wars and maybe Disney’s Black Hole to create their own lovable little rogue capable of thinking for himself, probably a lot like C3PO in intelligence expect with a sense of humour. 

The creator of Number 5 for Short Circuit was concept artist and futurist Syd Mead. Mead was the man behind the design work on films such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron. For Short Circuit Mead conceived Number 5 as a prototype battlefield weapon robot that could fire a laser to destroy enemy targets. 

In the opening scenes of Short Circuit on a test range, the versatility and firepower of the military’s secret new weapon is successfully carried out by commuter programmers, who help guide Number 5 and his robotic brothers. Soon after, in a moment inspired by Frankenstein, Number 5 is struck by lightning, short circuiting his commuter programming. It is here Number Five comes to life developing the ability to think for himself.

Number 5’s onscreen creator is scientist Newton Crosby, played by Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy fame), whose reputation as a robotics expert is undisputed. He is so sure of himself and his robotic creations that when Number 5 goes seemingly haywire he doesn’t quite believe it. By now the military has no choice but to bring Number 5 to heel. Things unfortunately escalate for Number 5 when he unwittingly goes AWOL and the military now wants to pull his kill switch.

After a series of comical accidents, Number 5 ends up in the back of a food truck driven by Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy), a sweet naive yet lively animal lover. When Stephanie eventually discovers Number 5 in her truck she comes to believe he is an alien sent to greet her: ”Oh my God, I knew they’d pick me!’’ Eventually after assessing he isn’t a threat, Stephanie coaxes Number 5 into her house where she discovers his insatiable curiosity and love of life. Under Stephanie’s protection, Number 5 absorbs life at an incredible rate. In short, he ends up reading every single book (including a giant dictionary) in her house soaking in knowledge like a sponge. Moreover when he discovers the wonder of television it is here that he surprisingly develops a whacky sense of humour that fits perfectly within the film setting up many of the gags to follow in this science fiction comedy.

In one of the film’s most wonderful scenes, I can’t help but smile when Number 5 insists Stephanie dance with him to the Bee Gees song More Than A Woman. With the television set as his guide, Number 5 mimics the scene from Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta serenades Karen Lynn Gorney on the dance floor. It’s a curious scene that hints at Number 5 being able to form friendships or relationships and maybe even feelings for Stephanie. Interestingly, later in the film with wide-eyed curiosity Number 5 finds Stephanie naked in the bath tub in which he inquiries, “Stephanie… change colour? As Stephanie looks down, somewhat embarrassed and reaches for a towel, Number 5 adds, “Attractive! Nice software. Mmm.” Stephanie’s comment is just as memorable as Number 5’s observation in which she says, “Boy, you sure don’t talk like a machine.”    

The hunt to retrieve Number Five is never far from our mind and when Stephanie accidentally discovers Number 5 is actually the property of the US military (and not an alien), she calls them to come and fetch their expensive toy. Of course, Number 5 becomes quite alarmed by this fearing he will be disassembled. And so, with the help of Stephanie, Number 5 tries to evade capture and must also work to convince his creator Crosby that he has truly come alive.

Some critics have dismissed Short Circuit particularly for its failings to exploring deeper questions around self-awareness and consciousness in artificial intelligence. Despite the criticism, I believe it does a decent job of raising questions around AI consciousness, especially on a family-friendly level. When Number 5 proclaims throughout the film that he is “alive” he does so with such sincere intent. Even when Crosby tries to rationalise that Number 5’s strange behaviour is due to a malfunction, he is quickly put in his place by Stephanie who tells him that Number 5’s “life is not a malfunction”. She is basically saying that life in all forms has purpose and value. Interestingly, only when Number 5 is put through a rigorous scientific-based test by Crosby does he come to believe in Number 5’s ability to think like a human being. 

In one last observation about the film I often wonder whether Short Circuit comes across as a modern day version of Frankenstein? Interestingly, Steve Guttenberg recently said, “For me, Short Circuit was Pinocchio.” Until now I never thought of it that way. What a brilliant way of looking at it. Indeed Number 5 seemingly exhibits all the joy and wonder of being alive just like Pinocchio.  

Photo credit: The header movie still image from the film Short Circuit (1986) is courtesy of Tri Star Pictures. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone by placing Number 5 and Stephanie, played by All Sheedy, into the frame. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded.

8 comments on “Short Circuit (1986): Number 5 is Alive!

  1. I have never seen this movie, but the clip you posted is so 80’s funny. Hey robot – time for bed! Lol. I may have to give this movie a whirl some day. Did you find any interviews from Ally Sheedy? I wonder how she feels about it.

  2. I’ve not seen the film either, but movies with robots are always fun!

  3. I have not seen this movie in decades and there probably is a reason for that. But I did enjoy it! And I remember that line StevefortheDeaf quoted…No Dissemble! Ok, I want to re-watch it now.

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