“Short Circuit” is rarely more serious than the idea that drives the story into being, that a lightning bolt can turn a programmed metal contraption into a sentient one, but once you swallow that pill the rest goes down easily enough. Dr. Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) is the engineering genius behind a series of multi-million dollar robots (picture that skinny kid from math class dipped in silver, riding tank treads). But despite his purer scientific intentions, his employer Nova Robotics is on the verge of a procurement deal with the American military, to sell the machines as Cold War soldiers. If that upsets Crosby, you wouldn’t know it. Guttenberg has a way of playing every emotion with an undercurrent of glee.
The film opens with a staged demonstration of the robots’ versatility, blasting army trucks with shoulder-mounted laser canons, then mixing a gin and tonic. But the real fun begins after a power surge gives Number 5 (the fifth of as many robots) consciousness. Now loose in the outside world, he (implied from the voice) befriends Stephanie (Ally Sheedy), a kind-hearted pacifist/animal lover who at first mistakes him for an alien. She must have seen “E.T.” Invited into her home, Number 5 develops a working knowledge of the world by speed reading her encyclopedias, which sets up his habit of expressing himself using lists of synonyms. “Jerk of the world, turkey, idiot, pain in the ass…” and so on. It’s cute until the sequel. Of course, any entity this wondrous needs a gun-toating agency of some kind to capture and/or liquidate it. Skroeder (“Police Academy”‘s G.W. Bailey) and his Nova security team fill this role, with cartoonish overkill. While they race to destroy what they consider to be a renegade weapon, Crosby charts a parallel course to save his creation, and eventually try to understand it.
With an added 26 years of entertainment under our belts since “Circuit”‘s release, how many more polished versions of the self-aware-machine movie have there been? Next to the life-like movements of a Michael Bay Transformer or the anthropormorphic Sonny from “I Robot,” Number 5 has all the fludity of a can opener. But the filmmakers, led by director John Badham (“Blue Thunder”, “The Hard Way”), do a decent job of humanizing their character. Number 5’s gangly construction and his fear of being “Disassembled!” help make him a sympathetic hero, and all the more from the child-like wonder he applies to every new discovery, from pancake making to the dance lesson he takes from a telecast of “Saturday Night Fever,” another Badham film.
One look and it’s obvious that “WALL-E” holds some different cards. The 2008 Pixar film had a significantly larger budget ($180 million according to Wikipedia) and digital technology to create its vision with, which isn’t to say a better film necessarily follows, but in this case….yes, it does. It’s hard to describe “WALL-E” without being magnanimous. The movie is brave in its decision to play largely as a silent film (with sounds effects) and is technically stunning, CG with a very filmic look. Even its post-apocalyptic visions of earth are gorgeous.
The story: the earth has long been uninhabitable, a lifeless garbage dump after untold years of glutinous consumerism. WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class) is the last of an army of miniature box-shaped garbage compactors assigned to clean it up. With only a cockroach to keep him company, he stacks trash cubes into towering skyscrapers. Deep in space meanwhile is the starship Axiom, a sterile cruise-ship-like vessel that is home to what remains of the human race. Centuries of space travel has rendered them puttyish, gelatinous blobs who shop and slurp soda from floating easy chairs, scarcely aware of life beyond their computer screens. Playfully prophetic. But the film never falls to preaching. Its messages are clear from the pictures alone. The thrust of the story though is romantic. When an eggish robot name EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) comes to earth looking for signs of life, WALL-E is smitten. He tries to impress her by showing off some of the items he’s collected, including a Rubik’s Cube, Zippo lighters and a plant that just might be the key to recolonizing the planet. EVE takes it back to the Axiom to satisfy her prime directive. Guess who tags along.
“WALL-E” was written by Jim Readon (“The Simpsons”) and director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”), a Pixar regular since the animation studio’s first CGI feature, “Toy Story.” The script is both smart and silly, as entertaining with its Chaplin-inspired physical comedy as “Nemo” was with its snappy dialogue. The movie also has a number of in-jokes for older viewers, such as the Macintosh chime that rings out after WALL-E charges himself and the great “dawn of man” scene where the blubbery Captain McCrea rises to his feet to challenge the Axiom’s defiant computer. When Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” creeps in on the soundtrack, it’s good for a goosebump or two.
It might be a stretch to put “Short Circuit” in that “fun for the whole family” box. Depends on the family. Actor Fisher Steven does a scene-stealing turn as Ben, an idiom-challenged East Indian techie who helps Crosby track Number 5, but between him and Skroeder there is some bleepable language. Sheedy, a Sandra Bullock for the 80s, supplies her usual girl-next-door perkiness. The film clearly isn’t at “WALL-E”‘s level, production wise. A good chunk of the budget went into the development of the robots themselves and it shows on screen. The chase scenes lack umph. Still, the Badham film delivers mostly good honest fun despite its own short circuits, notably some failed (yet necessary) chemistry between Sheedy and Guttenberg. Oddly, the more authentic romance comes from EVE and WALL-E, a lonely soul who longs for the same things we do: companionship and the simplicity of knotting his fingers into another’s. Naturally he learns it from a movie.
And the “winner” is: “WALL-E”