Short Circuit concerns Number Five, one of several prototype war robots, who develops an appearance of sentience following a power surge and is convinced that he has a life of his own. The main character heavily resembles Pixar’s WALL-E, but that’s where the similarities end. Short Circuit, being neither a romance nor an environmental film, tries to balance the obligations of being a comedy and something of an action movie, with middling results at best on both sides.
Well begun is only half done.
After some neat bleep-bloop sound effects and a simple title screen set on now-obsolete computer hardware, the movie then launches into an extremely impressive if noisy montage, showing how the robots central to the story are made. The sheer amount of detail makes the production process especially believable. Set to some really impressive electronic background music, tanks and personnel vehicles roll through a forest, only to be destroyed by a laser from one of the robots. There are lots of impressive explosions, which look awesome without being too graphic or disturbing for sensitive viewers.
This military action, actually a demonstration from Nova Laboratories, reveals the robots’ true purpose–and beyond being simple anti-vehicle weapons, these machines are meant to deliver nuclear weapons to Moscow and end the Cold War. That being stated, the robots have a wide variety of applications and abilities, from pouring and mixing drinks to playing the piano and making obscene gestures (the film stops being child-friendly rather early on as quite a lot of profanity pours in).
A sudden thunderstorm shocks the fifth of these war robots, frying its circuits, but instead of becoming inoperable, Number Five develops what is portrayed as self-awareness, goes missing, and learns to express emotion. “His” means of doing so are interesting, as the movement of his eyebrows is based on his copying of a butterfly’s fluttering wings, but this just raises logical questions of why so much work went into making the robots’ faces look vaguely human when they’re primarily intended for combat and not social interaction. It’s arguable that the movie is going for cuteness-first logic, but practicality seems more important if these robots are designed to be in a war zone.
Upon Number Five’s disappearance, its superiors try to remotely disable it but cannot, thanks to a malfunctioning power mechanism (was it ever explained what these robots run on, whether a battery or alternating current, and how long that power supply lasts?). The prototype, well armed and now highly unpredictable, is a huge liability, especially as it heads away from its isolated laboratory and toward a nearby residential area, leading to tensions over whether to capture the robot or to destroy it. The soundtrack is enjoyably confident, and some situational comedy from Number Five’s perspective gives the film some really nice aerial shots, just before he winds up an accidental passenger on top of a snack truck.
And then the movie goes markedly downhill.
The film’s mood and message are inconsistent.
Following lots of obscenities and a really awkward scene that almost becomes a domestic disturbance, the plot begins with a plan to take one of the working robot prototypes and go after Number Five. The latter ends up trapped inside the snack truck from earlier, which belongs to a woman named Stephanie. Their mutual introduction, slow and careful at first, quickly gives way to the knowledge-hungry Number Five reading quickly through a series of Stephanie’s reference books, along with anything else that can occupy him. As a child might, the robot makes a huge mess in his pursuit of learning, which quickly goes from being entertaining to being annoying.
Number Five, in emulating a grasshopper’s jumping motions, accidentally kills the creature and learns about the concept of death; meanwhile, as defense personnel are coming to recover and disassemble him, he associates this outcome with his own death and panics. Commandeering Stephanie’s vehicle, after learning how to navigate it from the operation manual, he steals it with her in tow, resulting in an odd reversal of roles from an earlier scene in the film. This leads to some legitimately interesting driving stunts, but Stephanie is so bothersome to listen to that she makes everyone around her just as aggravating as they argue over what to do about the robot.
A lot of the comic relief, such as when Number Five is dancing to music while driving, seems forced, and the numerous pop-culture references are funny the first time but not the tenth. Watching a robot emulate sillier instances of human behavior such as disco gets old quickly, as does his dialogue, which mostly mimics movies and television. Furthermore, for some bizarre reason, the story of security men on a quest to reclaim their wayward piece of technology is more compelling than a simplistically developed woman’s oddball interactions with a robot that thinks it’s alive. It’s laudable that the film “talks” against killing, but it doesn’t back this message up.
The story doesn’t know what it wants to be.
The movie is vastly improved when it finally becomes something resembling an action film, thanks to the other prototypes showing up, and the action scenes are “silly” enough to seem like they belong in a children’s movie, even if the rather commonplace profanities and sexual innuendo don’t. The problems come, en masse, when a robot who claims pacifism has no problem with lasering a tree, which is shown to be very much alive, to create a roadblock, even though it very easily could have resulted in accidental injury, as Number Five himself demonstrated earlier. Furthermore, the robot uses its lasers on the Defense Department’s vehicles and equipment, which the same Stephanie who condemned that department’s “warmongering” gleefully cheers.
The movie never asks whether any of those other machines have the same capacity for life that Number Five is said to possess (including the robots he shuts off, leading to what? Sleep? Death?), nor are questions raised about the damaging of the environment for one’s own ends. Instead, the story goes along with its questionable support of its questionable premise, which largely fails to be entertaining or edifying. This is especially clear in the way the movie grapples with the subject of a robot’s ability to have a biological consciousness, as the villains in the story aren’t exactly shown to be the foremost experts on philosophy or even on life science. As a result, the way the movie quickly tears them down and discards them doesn’t even seem fair.
Short Circuit’s story falls apart upon any sort of close examination, which wouldn’t matter if the movie succeeded as a comedy, but it’s too inappropriate for children and too juvenile for adults. There are also several scenes that, while not relevant to the larger plot, are much more nerve-wracking or needlessly stressful than they are funny, including a B-plot involving a deranged suitor that rapidly goes between being threatening and being comedic.
Movies that succeed at being legitimately well made action films while carrying a convincing anti-war message are not something I often come across, and this isn’t exactly a shining example of that combination. As with the first Pokémon movie, a story that cries pacifism while simultaneously making its action scenes into its most enjoyable segments is probably going to look weird, and that’s what happens here, especially with characters whom I find almost universally unlikable for one reason or another. Your enjoyment of the plot may depend on how willing you are to accept the idea that a robot can ever be a living thing, but if you’re looking for a film where a robot actually succeeds in looking “cute” and where the story doesn’t try (and fail, at that) to shove its message down the viewer’s throat, I recommend watching WALL-E instead.
This article was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.