Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 7 – Short Circuit (1986)


Sometimes you hear an anecdote in an interview and you forget about it and sometimes it just stays with you.  One such anecdote occurred in a Hot 97 interview with Aziz Ansari where Ansari recounts a time he was hanging out with Jay-Z and for whatever reason brought up the movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial only to have the rapper snap back “I don’t fuck with E.T… but you know what’s dope, Johnny Five from Short Circuit.”  Ansari (who will come up again later in this review) and the hosts riff on this peculiar movie opinion but the comic recounts how Hov’s eyes lit up when he brought up the Short Circuit movies.  The artist formerly known as Jigga does not seem to be alone in his enthusiasm for Short Circuit, it seems to be one of the pre-eminent “nostalgia movies” despite having gotten mixed to negative reviews when it first came out and being only a very modest box office success and it clearly inspired aspects of later blockbusters like Wall-E and non-blockbusters like Chappie.  Also, while I would say that I disagree with Mr. Carter’s assessment that the movie is better than E.T. he is on to something when he compares the movies directly as Short Circuit is almost certainly inspired by the box office success of Spielberg’s film.  Both films feature a cute version of a science fiction mainstay on the run from shady government entities and being taken in by an ordinary person who befriends them and tries to protect them.

At the heart of Short Circuit there is a potentially interesting science fiction idea buried in it but it’s stuck in the middle of a movie with very lame ambitions.  There could be a good movie about a robot gaining sentience and slowly becoming more aware of the world by observing “input” item by item, but that’s really not where this movie’s interests lie.  Instead its main goal seems to be turning Johnny Five into the goofiest and cuddly robot they can.  He’s given a rather annoying voice by a guy named Tim Blaney, whose background is in puppetry and you can kind of tell because this sounds more like the kind of voice you come up with a give a ventriloquist dummy or something rather than a real character.  The human cast is not much better.  I’m not sure who made Steve Gutenberg a star but they need to be stopped and Ally Sheedy stopped being cast in movies people care about after 1989 for a reason, but even better actors probably wouldn’t have been able to do much with these rather stock characters.  Then of course there’s the character of Ben Jabituya (whose renamed Ben Jahveri in the sequel for some reason), an Indian character with a rather Apu like accent played by the decidedly non-Asian actor Fisher Stevens.  This character was highlighted by Aziz Ansari in the “Master of None” episode called “Indians on TV” and has plainly not aged well.  Even setting aside the problematic nature of this casting the character is just annoying and obnoxious.

I also took a look at the film’s sequel, Short Circuit 2.  I had expected it to be much lamer than the original, and in some ways it certainly was.  Ally Sheedy and Steve Gutenberg are easy actors to make fun of but you do start to miss them when they leave the series and the white guy playing an Indian becomes the lead.  The sequel also basically gives up any pretention of being the next E.T. and settles for being the next Harry and the Hendersons, but there are some improvements too.  New York proves to be a more interesting setting for Johnny Five’s hijinks than whatever rural area the first movie was set in and the movie also oddly doubles down on the idea of Johnny Five as something of an oppressed minority.  It’s a slightly hypocritical stance given the film’s brownface lead and it’s less than authentic take on Latin street gangs, but it is there nonetheless.  Beyond that there are also a couple of gags in the film that work better than they probably should.  Ultimately I’m not sure I like or dislike the sequel more than the original or vice versa.  One feels like a good movie turned lame and the other feels like a lame movie made better than it might have otherwise and the two just sort of meet in the middle, but really all they have in common is that they’re cheaply made movies made for cynical reasons.

To the Scorecard:

Officially I’m just counting the original film as my entry for this round but whichever way I went on that the result would have basically been the same as I was not overly impressed by either movie.  There are 80s movies out there that I don’t like but get why they’re remembered nostalgically but this is not one of them.  Anyone who watches this thing over the age of 11 should be able to tell it’s second rate.  Also, Jay-Z, stick to rapping because your opinion about family movies from the 80s is lacking.

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