In "Short Circuit," there's nothing at stake, either emotionally or artistically or howsoever -- and I mean nothing -- but the movie's so diverting, and so giddily oblivious to its own faults, that it almost doesn't matter. Funny and paced at a gallop, it's a melt-away movie made for summer nights.
The hero of "Short Circuit" is a robot, known as Number Five, created by Dr. Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg). Crosby, who is a humanist, designed him, he jokes, "as a marital aid"; Nova Robotics, Crosby's employer and a Pentagon subcontractor, wants him to be a killing machine. Once he gets struck by lightning, of course, Number Five gets some ideas of his own.
He careens around the countryside. He is struck by the beauty of a butterfly, and of a girl, Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy). He has feelings. He fears death. He is, in short, alive, although the military, Nova's security forces and Stephanie's old boyfriend don't want him that way.
You might say that "Short Circuit" is influenced by a number of recent movies, although you could also call it stealing. As designed by Syd Mead, Number Five looks like a self-portrait of E.T. constructed from the parts of a vacuum cleaner. The essentials of the story are cribbed from director John Badham's own "WarGames." And the heart of the movie's humor -- Number Five learns English from television -- is an outright steal from "Splash" and Joe Dante's "Explorers."
Listen! The robot's doing John Wayne! Hey, if that isn't Howard Cosell! Dredging up pieces of popular culture and throwing them on the screen is a sterile strategy, and while it's fun to see three killer robots mischievously rewired to perform like the Three Stooges, whatever's dull about "Short Circuit" comes when that strategy wears thin on you. Yet first-time screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock keep "Short Circuit" bubbling with a verbal inventiveness that's sometimes dazzling.
Number Five also learns his English by digesting dictionaries at a zillion pages a minute, and as he wanders around on his tank treads, he hounds his compatriots with synonyms. (The best scenes in the movie show what a pain in the neck a precocious robot can be, as he bullies you with knowledge, raucously demanding "More input!").
In fact, in Wilson and Maddock's hands, the disintegration of language becomes what "Short Circuit's" all about. Crosby's sidekick, an oversexed Indian scientist named Ben (played by Fisher Stevens, a New York stage phenom with meticulous vocal control and comic timing), delivers a stream of hilarious malapropisms; the villains are concerned with the punctilios of their tough-guy military jargon (is it a "huey" or a "chopper"?). Throughout, the movie buzzes with a heightened awareness of words, and what they mean to different people. There is computer-speak and Army-speak and TV-speak and English-as-a-second-language-speak and even Apache-speak, and it keeps people apart from each other.
I wouldn't call Badham a great director, but he's got a certain genius as a film editor. Film performances are made in the editing room -- it's no accident that Sheedy's delivered two fine performances, one in "The Breakfast Club" (edited by the legendary Dede Allen) and the other in Badham's "WarGames." Here, Sheedy is light and easy, even charming; you can feel Badham scissoring away the bloat. The true gauge of Badham's work is how easy it is to take Guttenberg, an actor who had been, till now, the cinematic equivalent of the gypsy moth.
Pace, too, is built in the editing room, and like Badham's "WarGames" and "Blue Thunder," "Short Circuit" has the varoom of a tractor trailer in a hurry. The movie is all pursuit -- Crosby, Nova and Stephanie's boyfriend all want a piece of Number Five, and Badham juggles the pursuers effortlessly.
The romance between Guttenberg and Sheedy is flat, and so is the movie's theme, which is, in the most general and mawkish way, a respect for life and a hatred of war. "Short Circuit" is full of a lot of self-righteous moralizing, but as with the romance, Badham doesn't dwell on it. He likes to get in and out in a flash, and while that steals some of the movie's heart, he seems to realize that no matter what he does, nobody's going to get a lump in his throat over a can of bolts; he plays to the movie's strengths: its wit and wall-to-wall busyness. You're in and out in a flash, too.
Short Circuit, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some profanity.