Perhaps it is just my age, but the 80s always feel like it was a great time to be a kid. The kids films back then are still enjoyable today with their synth-heavy soundtracks, camp effects, and appealingly sweet and naïve storylines. Some of them aren’t quite as feel-good as we remember (*batteries not included, for instance), while others continue to inspire kids to achieve greatness (The Karate Kid), and others are just plain cult classics (The Goonies).
At first glance, Short Circuit should be among the list of beloved 80s family films. The story is great; it’s fun and sweet, with plenty of tacky music, sound effects, and an adorable robot. So why does it often get missed off the list? There are three major, and unforgivable, problems with Short Circuit. The film is racist, sexist, and has an odd running joke of the main antagonist’s name being very similar to the word ‘scrotum’ (a reference which is also explicitly made at one point – in a family film, really?).
As part of a military research programme, computer genius Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) has engineered five ultimate weapons – robots. On the day the techies present the robots to their military superiors, robot number 5 is struck by lightning while attached to a generator. His programming malfunctions and he strikes out on his own.
While the military scramble desperately to find a malfunctioning weapon on the loose, no. 5 meets Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy), a friendly young woman who has a habit of taking in strays. At first, Stephanie believes no. 5 to be an alien, and she does her best to educate him in the ways of Earth. On discovering he is a robot, she attempts to return him to his creators.
No. 5 is not malfunctioning, as Crosby believes, however. Stephanie is convinced that no. 5 is alive and is determined to help him. Nova Corps, his creators, are promising to have no. 5 ‘killed’ (his interpretation of being disassembled). Stephanie reaches out to Crosby in the hope that he will see that no. 5 has evolved beyond his programming and is truly alive.
Number 5 is alive
The ingredients for a classic 80s feel-good family film are all there, but Short Circuit falls flat to a modern audience. The writing team behind Short Circuit, SS Wilson and Brent Maddock, are best known for *batteries not included (with a big screen writing debut from Brad Bird), Tremors, and Wild Wild West. Meanwhile, director John Badham was an odd choice, having directed films like Saturday Night Fever and War Games before Short Circuit, both with more serious undertones. The film was a hit at the time of its release (1986), grossing a total of $40,697,761, making it the 21st highest grossing film of that year (performing better than cult classics like Little Shop of Horrors and Pretty in Pink).
Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy are the film’s big names, both staples of the 80s. These two featured in some of the biggest and most beloved 80s films, Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, and War Games, and Guttenberg in Three Men and a Baby, Police Academy, and Cocoon. With that much glorious 80s star-power attached to this feel-good family film, it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t remained as popular as some of its contemporaries.
Almost immediately as the film opens we meet technical assistant and engineer Ben Jabituya (played by the white Fisher Stevens) who is supposedly of Indian descent. While it is bad enough to have a white actor play a non-white character, especially with the stereotypical put-on accent and broken English of a non-native English speaker, that’s not the worst of it. They make a joke about where Jabituya is from after Crosby asks him where his family hails from – to which Jabituya replies that they are from the US. If he is born and raised in the US, why does he have the accent? And why isn’t his English better? Every moment that Jabituya is on screen is a jarring, racist portrayal that we thankfully don’t tend to see in modern films.
If the racism inherent in Jabituya’s character weren’t bad enough, the writers have added in misogyny for good measure. Of course, this in turn is more racism, placing a stereotypical negative view of women onto the foreign character. He continually makes references to Stephanie being crazy/stupid/emotional/impulsive/etc and puts it down to the fact that she is a woman. When Crosby shows a romantic interest in Stephanie, Jabituya immediately switches to viewing her as a sexual object, with no opinion on her personality (even though it is well established he thinks she’s mad), assessing her on appearance alone.
If racism and sexism weren’t enough, the film also likes to simply make jokes in bad taste. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good rude joke, but this is a kids/family film. Maybe I have lulled into a world of censoring children from too much, but a robot giving the middle finger? Running jokes about a top military official’s name being very close to the word ‘scrotum’? It just doesn’t sit well with the otherwise sweet storyline.
What is most disappointing about this film is that if you ignore the racism, sexism, and poor jokes, it’s actually a very fun family film. The design of no. 5 is great, simple yet effective. His personality will have kids, even today, laughing and rooting for him. The sub plot of the awkward, antisocial computer geek falling for the down to earth, passionate woman is also rewarding. If only the underlying negative tones could be removed, Short Circuit would be one of the better 80’s family films.