Cinophile – Short Circuit

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Meet Johnny 5, the robot that briefly stole the heart of the Eighties…

Short CircuitGreat ideas rose and fell like the tide in the Eighties. Gremlins got as far as two films, so did Conan, Ghostbusters and most would probably prefer to pretend there were only two Ninja Turtle movies. Thanks to E.T. and Star Wars, mega-movie box-office bait could wash waves of merchandise over a public lapping it up. If you ever cut a gremlin or turtle mask out of a cereal box, you know what it was like.

Short Circuit was one of the brief franchises that rode that wave all the way to the top. Curiously it doesn’t feature readily in ‘top films of 1986’ lists and wasn’t among the top 20 biggest grossers of that year. Yet if you were in a certain age group, Johnny 5 occupies a slice of your Eighties nostalgia. When lightning strikes an experimental military robot, it starts behaving strangely. By the time its creators figured this out, it had already found its way off base. Soon we learn that the robot, number 5, is alive – except nobody believes him!

The idea for the movie came from an educational movie, starring a stop-motion robot. Ironically the last thing Johnny 5 would appear in was an educational video from 1990 about car theft.
The idea for the movie came from an educational movie, starring a stop-motion robot. Ironically the last thing Johnny 5 would appear in was an educational video from 1990 about car theft.

There have been number of cinematic stabs at this theme over the decades, from Blade Runner’s replicants to David in A.I. But Short Circuit is probably the most playful of the lot. It is thoroughly a product of its time – right down to Steve Guttenberg and G.W. Bailey reprising pretty much the same roles as they did in Police Academy. Johnny 5 was a masterpiece of puppet engineering as only the Eighties could deliver – the sequel even used Jim Henson puppeteers. And he packed the other two prerequisites of the decade: one-liners and lasers.

Johnny 5 was originally meant to be animated through stop-motion, but the director wanted something the actors could interact with. Designed by Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Aliens), Johnny 5 became a working puppet thanks to Eric Allard. Several versions of the robot was built for different sequences in the movie. Only one still exists and was put on auction for $100,000 several years ago.
Johnny 5 was originally meant to be animated through stop-motion, but the director wanted something the actors could interact with. Designed by Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Aliens), Johnny 5 became a working puppet thanks to Eric Allard. Several versions of the robot was built for different sequences in the movie. Only one still exists and was put on auction for $100,000 several years ago.

Made for around $16 million, Short Circuit would return nearly three times that at the box office and then become one of the all-time greats of the VHS age. A sequel appeared two years later, but didn’t make as impressive a profit – even though it garnered more critical approval. Plans for a third film and tv series fell through, putting and end of Johnny 5’s brief but memorable reign in pop culture. But he lives on – some argue that the junk-scrounging robot from Wall-E is a dead-ringer for the guy, though apparently it’s coincidental. A remake is on the cards, but we all know how that can go…

The famous dancing scene was taken from Saturday Night Fever, one of director John Badham’s previous movies. It was added to make Johnny 5 seem more real and was one of the film’s tougher scenes to film. It took over four puppeteers to control the robot, resulting from months of rehearsals.
The famous dancing scene was taken from Saturday Night Fever, one of director John Badham’s previous movies. It was added to make Johnny 5 seem more real and was one of the film’s tougher scenes to film. It took over four puppeteers to control the robot, resulting from months of rehearsals.

Best Scene: Johnny 5 is a total scene stealer, but he really shines when hijacking the truck taking him back to the research lab.

Best Quote: “Attractive! Nice software.”

 

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: March 3, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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