Short Circuit Review

Johnny Five is alive, this time on UK Blu-ray.

The Movie

The 1980s ushered in a renewed period of filmic fascination with robots, the robo-genre having been jumpstarted by Arnie’s ass-kicking cyborg in The Terminator. Short Circuit started out in much the same vein, with the original story featuring a renegade military weapon turning on its creators, but as the script evolved it became the comedy movie that most ’80s kids should have fond memories of.

Nova Robotics’ SAINT armament system, created by geeks Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) and Benjamin Yatipuh (Fisher Stevens), is rolled out for a sales demonstration to various international warmongers. But after a stray bolt of lightning fries the last of the five SAINT units it begins to show a curious fascination with the world around it, ignoring his set programming to pursue a new course: life. After ‘Number Five’ inadvertently escapes and encounters kind-hearted animal lover Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), he gains the trust of Crosby and they go on the run to avoid the reach of Nova’s head honcho Martin (Austin Pendleton) and his trigger happy security advisor Captain Skroeder (G.W. Bailey).

John Badham’s 1986 film is still a fun experience almost three decades years later, and what looked outdated in the ’90s now has a lot of character all its own. Some people may scoff at that remark, what with the cast being comprised of a fair few ’80s legends, but the entirely practical realisation of the metallic main character gives it a feeling of weight and reality that’s beyond the average modern-day CG insert. Syd Mead’s design work has become ever more iconic, as Pixar’s cutesy Wall•E owes a significant debt to his efforts. The voice performance by Tim Blaney imbues ‘Five’ with a pitch-perfect sense of childlike wonder without overdoing the schmaltz, and as Blaney was actually on-set reading his lines (and controlling Five’s head movements) it allowed the other actors to react more dynamically to his actions.

The actors are crucial to the success of the premise, as we won’t believe that this automaton is alive unless they do, and they all contribute something to the show. Ally Sheedy’s kooky turn is the standout, with Guttenberg’s unusually nerdy character not far behind. G.W. Bailey’s militaristic moron is a little close to Police Academy’s Lt. Harris for comfort, a situation not helped by the fact that he’s facing off against Guttenberg again. Nova’s chief is played by a nicely manic Austin Pendleton. Fisher Steven’s portrayal of a bumbling young Indian has long been accused of racism, Stevens having ‘blacked up’ to play the role, but he nails things like the little speech characteristics (apparently he sought the advice of Indian people on the set) and he really does look the part.

It’s a bit of an old-fashioned comedic shortcut, having the goofy foreigner who’s always mangling the local dialect, yet it really does work because Stevens doesn’t rely on racial clichés. A lot of the laughs come from the fact that Ben’s a horny little devil, which wasn’t an affectation unique to Indians, last time I checked. Of course, your mileage may vary as to how you feel about Stevens’ performance, but having laughed my head off as a child I find him to be just as funny a couple of decades on, and I feel the same way about the film overall.

The Disc

Second Sight’s region free Blu-ray is a single layer platter. The movie is presented in 2.40 widescreen, as per the original anamorphic 35mm photography. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that this 1080p24 encode is the 1080i60 master from Image’s US version deinterlaced and presented at the correct frame rate, because the two are practically identical, right down to the dirt on the print being in the same places. The image is quite pleasing, with sharp, grain-free daylight exteriors and darker, grainier interiors, with the opticals also featuring the requisite uptick in grain.

Detail in the well-lit shots is excellent, with no signs of undue sharpening. Colour looks the tiniest bit faded, with primaries lacking boldness and skin tones taking on a slightly jaded hue. Blacks are surprisingly decent, though some shots have a characteristic thinness. The compression on this AVC encode gets a bit stressed during the opening credits, and there’s something odd going on with the innermost edges of the black bars as they seem to fluctuate in brightness, but otherwise the occasionally heavy grain is handled competently.

The lossy DTS 5.1 audio (encoded at the maximum 1.5mbps bitrate) is on a par with the video, being a solid if unspectacular rendition of the original Dolby Stereo mix. Compared to the uncompressed PCM 2.0 track the discrete 5.1 remix hasn’t had any heroic measures carried out on it, as rear ambience is limited and bass is restricted to underpinning the music rather than bolstering the action scenes. The dialogue often sounds a little disjointed, as much of it was replaced during the ADR process. David Shire’s quirky score comes off best, with a full-bodied quality. It’s worth mentioning that the US disc carries a full-fat Master Audio soundtrack, but given the lack of aural acrobatics you’re not missing out on much.

The extras as listed on the disc menu might seem like a strong selection, but it’s basically a collection of vintage EPK material and an audio commentary for the main movie. (I seem to remember that some of this stuff was on the old ‘Cinema Club’ UK DVD.) There’s a short ‘making of’ featurette and a reel of dry ‘behind the scenes’ footage. The interviews with Badham, Guttenberg, and Sheedy are fluffy 2 minute PR jobs, though the bits with designer Syd Mead and special effects supervisor Eric Allard are more substantial, running for 17 and 34 minutes respectively. The tatty looking trailer must’ve been taken from an old composite tape source. (The isolated score has not been carried over from the US disc.)

For the commentary, director John Badham is joined by writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock for an easygoing chat. While it isn’t the most propulsive effort, you’ll hear some interesting insights into how the script evolved, what difficulties were had with the robot and other titbits from the set.


Short Circuit is a charming flight of robotic fancy that still has plenty to recommend it. The Blu-ray doesn’t excel in any particular department but it’s got solid marks across the board, and is well worth picking up if you’re after some nostalgic ’80s goodness.

Geoff Dearth

Updated: Nov 18, 2012

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