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MMYIF: Short Circuit 2

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Short Circuit 2
Directed by: Kenneth Johnson
Starring: Fisher Stevens, Michael McKean, Tim Blaney
Released: July 6, 1988

Robot Johnny Five comes to the city and gets manipulated by criminals who want him for their own purposes.

What I Thought Then

A silly romp featuring everyone's favorite fast-talking robot and his nutty inventor friend Ben. We watched this a lot.

What I Think Now

Sooooo, are we gonna talk about the brown-face now? Or are we going to come back to it? Let's come back to it.

The original Short Circuit was a Steve Guttenberg comedy featuring an interesting sci-fi concept that's awfully slow for the first two acts and has exactly one memorable line: "Hey laser-lips, your mother was a snow-blower!" It also has Fisher Stevens in a minor roll as Guttenberg's partner Ben, an Indian played by a white dude because that was just a thing that happened in the 80s--no, no, we're gonna talk about it later. Anyway, the first movie was okay, not great, not memorable. Too adulty for kids, too silly for adults. The sequel is decidedly more kid-targeted, and for whatever reason, stars Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy didn't come back, so the film is instead centered on Fisher Stevens' Ben, as well as the mechanical madcappery of No. 5, who has has taken the name "Johnny" for himself.

Ben has moved to Toronto (although for some reason everyone keeps treating it like it's New York City) and is selling small toy versions of No. 5 on the street while working towards getting American citizenship. His toys get noticed by a department store buyer named Sandy, played by Cynthia Gibb as the requisite love interest sporting a series of outfits inspired by Debbie Gibson music videos. Ben now has to produce in volume and is assisted by a street hustler named Fred, played by Michael McKean (Oh, hey! Michael McKean's in this! And he has somehow aged a decade and a half in the three years since he was in Clue.) They set up shop in a soon-to-be-demolished warehouse where--unbeknownst to them--some crooks are squatting so they can tunnel into a neighboring bank vault and steal a $40 million dollar diamond collection. Number "Johnny" 5 is freighted to Ben to help with robot production and is amazed to learn that he is in a city, surrounded by "major input" and people who either hate him for being a machine or want to take advantage of him because he's a very useful machine. Hijinks ensue.

Overall... it's a very mixed bag. There are some funny jokes. The robot puppetry effects are impressive. The optical compositing, less so. The score is your typical 80s comedy score--synth strings + synth slap bass + a real saxophone. The climax is dull, even with Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero playing underneath it. The timeline is confusing--the movie takes place from mid-September to mid-October but it feels like it happens over like two or three days and there are Christmas trees visible in the background of some shots. And the film is all over the place tone-wise. The humor feels geared towards children--and indeed, Johnny 5 is going to be most relatable to that set, as his one enduring trait is that he's very capable but just doesn't know anything at all about adults or adult relationships. And yet, there's a lot of not-kid-friendly stuff going on in the background: Fred meets his loan shark at a strip club; the warehouse where Ben sets up shop is full of naked mannequins; Ben's malapropisms include things like saying "gang-bangers" when he means "gangbusters". Oh, and Ben and Sandy have zero romantic chemistry. None. Something I'd missed as a kid during the teleprompter scene, where Johnny is helping Ben make small talk, is just how badly it's going even before the cat or the popcorn vender interfere. It's kind of surprising that she even gives him the time of day after that. It's implied that they spent the night together after their first date, but then Ben acts incredibly surprised when Sandy kisses him at the end. It's all just very awkward.

And speaking of awkward... Time to talk about the brown-face. For context, Stevens was cast in the first movie before they decided to make Ben an Indian. It's pure happenstance that Ben became the lead character of the second film at all. This was never supposed to be a white guy playing an Indian in a leading role, and yet that's where it ended up. And both Stevens and the producers have issued public apologies for this. But the real question is: how does it play on screen? And the answer?

I mean... it's not great. On a scale of 1 to Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany's, this is probably about a 6. The one joke that the film keeps coming back to is that Ben doesn't speak English very well and it gets tiresome. His accent is overly broad and the movie shows us his "Indian-ness" by putting some Hindu decorations on a wall and having him sleep in a kurta. But that's also all we get of his internal life. He doesn't feel like a real character--he honestly feels less developed than Johnny 5. And his whiteness is especially noticeable when someone actually of Near-Eastern or South Asian descent shows up as an extra or bit-player (for a movie made in the 80s, the diversity of the background casting is pretty true-to-life for a major metropolis). Stevens makes the character sympathetic, and one of the things that actually makes the film work at all is the loving camaraderie between Ben and Johnny. But on the whole it's mostly just cringe-inducing. And don't even get me started on the "Los Locos" gang initiation sequence, which is an entirely different flavor of cringe.

But what's crazy about all of this is that it's a movie about othering! Johnny 5's entire conflict throughout the film is that he's treated as a second-class citizen. Hell, when he shows up he's wearing a boatload of rainbow stickers and has given himself a new name that better reflects his new "alive" identity. I read this as not-subtle-at-all queer-coding, although I am cis and this was the 80s, so I'm hardly an authority. Regardless of whether such queer-coding was intentional or not, the movie makes no attempt to relate Johnny's "otherness" to anything going on around him. When Ben commiserates with Johnny about it, he doesn't talk about the immigrant experience; he talks about how Sandy hasn't noticed him romantically. The one kind of half-nod we get is during a scene when Fred is trying to sell Johnny and a female executive quips "Great, a robot who believes in equal rights", earning her a nervous look from a male counterpart. Oh, but while Johnny maintains that he is alive--and the film just accepts this as a given, which is fine--he also benefits tremendously from not being alive. He never sleeps. He charges himself once. He steals a lot of stuff, causes no small amount of property damage, and faces no personal liability for any of it. Make up your mind, movie! In the end, he is awarded the benefits of being human, but there's no reconciliation for the responsibilities of it. It's kind of frustrating because this film skirts around the edges of having something to say and then just doesn't say it, instead making vague pop culture references and dressing all of that up as comedy.

In that light, this is another franchise that strikes me as being ripe for a reboot. The robot design is endearing. He's basically Wall-E, but taller. The concept actually fits really well with modern advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as contemporary philosophical debates about the rights of machines. And tying all of that in with ideas like multiculturalism and self-determination, especially around identity, and the state of immigration in modern American political discourse--this is is fertile ground for a low-concept sci-fi comedy. I bet you could even get Tim Blaney to do the voice again.

Recommendation?

Pass. This one has aged especially poorly. Although Gibb's bolero clubbing outfit almost make it worth the rental, purely from an anthropological point of view.

Tune in next week for a talking horse and a mistress of the dark...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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