reviewed by Tom-Tom
There are a great many films I enjoyed during the 80’s: Star Wars, Star Trek II, III, IV, Crocodile Dundee, Karate Kid Parts I&II, Ghostbusters and…Short Circuit. My brother, sister, and I ran around the living room quoting the latter film. “Need input. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?” I was in love with Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), who loved animals and had cats, dogs, skunks, but not snakes in her house and owned a mobile snack van. I’m really scared at how it will hold up after almost 30 years.
The film begins with a cool 80’s robo-techno beat serenading the construction of the 5 Superintelligent Robots each labeled with a number indicating the order of the creation. This segues into a green pasture with pretty flowers being tread on by tank tracks and war vehicles. Since when do battlefields have flowerbeds waiting to be trod on? The war machines are soon dispatched by laser wielding robots in a series of satisfying explosions.
The robots are being marketed as the future of unmanned warfare to representatives of the government. They even mix cocktails with apparent ease. A sudden thunderstorm causes the demonstration to move indoors where lesser robots are serving drinks reminding me of the droids on Jabba the Hutt’s sand barge. Lightning strikes Number 5 whose circuits get fried. Initial superficial checks reveal nothing more than somewhat sluggish response time. It soon becomes apparent that a significant change has come over the robot. He craves input. Newton Crosby(Guttenburg) and his colleague Ben (Fisher Stevens ) let the audience know that robots “don’t feel happy or sad or angry or glad. They just run programs.”
How is it, then, that Number 5 has ceased to adhere to his programming and instead takes the first waste bin out of Nova Headquarters? He sends infrequent hints at what he is doing vis a vis Dr. Pepper ads and statements of being alive. Number 5 finds Stephanie, who lives with a considerable number of animals for a young single in her early 20’s. I wonder who looks after them while she sells her mobile snacks. What she lacks in acting ability, she makes up in earnestness and a genuine friendliness towards all life. This is a stark contrast from the war mongering private security forces of Nova led by Captain Skroeder, a buffoonish aggressive type with tunnel vision albeit much more practical and direct than the wishy washy Howard Marner, Nova’s President (Austin Pendleton). The level of acting is roughly Disney Channel or similar. This would make it a successful family film if parents don’t mind a light but continuous stream of light swearing.
I ate it up as a kid. Particularly when Skroeder is angered to the point where he says that the robot “is starting to give [him] the red ass.”
As an adult, I found the debates about what qualifies or not as living or being alive. A scene involving Newton and Number 5 debating on why the robot rewired himself in a certain way is a direct conversation we all wish we could have with the computers in our lives. I have to admit a few nostalgic tears came into my eyes. Despite the acting and silly dialogue of side stories, Number 5 himself is really quite charming after he consumes an entire encyclopedia’s worth of input and then stays up all night watching TV.
This transformation is also present in another family friendly film released the same year: Flight of the Navigator. The thesaurus-like way Number 5 speaks is awfully endearing just saving this film from otherwise 2 dimensional characters and a rather uncharming Steve Guttenburg whose attempts at humor are terrible and terribly dated. His colleague Ben’s overuse of the present progressive tense as well as his loose grasp of the American idiom provides light if dated comedy.