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That’s all we need. A robot who’s into equal rights!

Short Circuit 2

(SPOILERS) Evidently, the inspiration for Babe: Pig in the City. And, in turn, as Time Out put it “a chromium Crocodile Dundee”, as our anthropomorphic hero is led astray in the Big Smoke. Johnny 5’s the original Chappie, and on balance, far preferable. Short Circuit may not have been able to boast an actual Indian benefactor/human sidekick, but it at least avoided the blight that is Die Antworte. This sequel was divested of stars Steve Guttenberg and Allie Sheedy (the latter has a voiceover), and director John Badham also opted out, so it’s unsurprising the box office halved. Short Circuit 2 is by no means terrible – Johnny 5 is nothing if not personable, in an irrepressible, ADHD, Roger Rabbit kind of way – but it’s unmistakeably a big-screen TV movie.

Johnny 5: I possess immortal soul?

And a big-screen Disney TV movie at that (although, up until about 1980, were there any other kinds of big-screen Disney movies?) Johnny 5’s a quirky, quotable, kid-friendly character of a kind the Mouse House would have loved to own.

Johnny 5: I do not travel with bananas, sir!

The Film Year Book Volume 8’s Stephen Dark considered Short Circuit 2 a “shopworn one-joke wonder” but admitted Johnny’s “attempt to understand its mechanical nature is sometimes poignant”. Dominic Wells was approving, claiming it better than the original, “But why, when the theme is prejudice encountered in Johnny Five’s quest for acceptance among humans, is his Indian friend an absurd stereotype played by a blacked-up white actor?” It seems Stevens and Aziz Ansari had a conciliatory chat about the role (hidden behind a NYT paywall, so I can’t vouch for it), where the latter didn’t consider Stevens had played Ben as “a tired stereotype”. But I guess that depends what you’re picking up on.

Johnny 5: Like a sweaty duck.

I’m actually on-board with the position that Short Circuit 2 is superior to the original movie, albeit that’s all about degrees of not-that-good-actually. And, on the “positive” side of brown-face, Ben is now a romantic lead and no longer a sex pest. He’s allowed a plotline in which he gets to woo white girl Sandy (Cynthia Gibb), who doesn’t just see him as part of the cheap labour, immigrant workforce (eventually). Albeit, that’s okay, viewers, don’t worry, as you all realise Ben is a white guy underneath?

Mostly, though, Ben’s replete with the mispronounced phrasing that speaks of channelling Peter Sellers in The Party twenty years earlier (also a sympathetic Indian protagonist). This means he can get away with such PG-certificate references to “hard-ons”, “We are manufacturing them like gangbangers” and “It does not mean that your mother is sleeping with my dog” (so erections, rape and bestiality).

Johnny 5
: Johnny 5 not a thing.

The plot features the very Disney concoction of foiling an attempt to rob a bank of its diamonds. However, here, instead of some pesky, meddlesome kids, it’s Ben, wheeler-dealer lowlife Fred Ritter (Michael McKean, a welcome presence) and Johnny 5 who are up against the thieves. Johnny has rather unwisely been sent to join Ben and Fred’s efforts to manufacture a supply of little Johnnys for a toy store; their “warehouse” just happens to be the same location Jones (David Hemblen) and Saunders (Dee McCafferty) plan to use to break into the bank.

Johnny 5: Two excellent books. May I have these, craphead?

Writers Brent Maddock and SS Wilson have returned from the original, and if this is no Tremors, it’s also far from the worst thing with their names attached. They do endeavour to inject something of a unifying theme; Johnny learns more about his humanity as Ben learns – with Johnny’s help – to express himself.

Tim Blaney’s Johnny performance is winning enough, if ever in danger of becoming wearing, and his naivety creates some decent gags. Now equipped with a massive – ahem – 500mb of memory, he’s soon out on the streets (“It’s like Montana. Only vertical”), noting the local punk populace (“Woah! Human porcupines”) and being pressed into service by “the department of car stereo repairs” (a Latino gang ripping of motors). He duly gets graffiti’d (“No, decorations. Multi-coloured petroleum by-products!”)

Johnny 5: I like Oscar, he’s very friendly and he treats me with RVSP.

Despite the fact the he was earlier hoodwinked – “I was tricked? Flim-flamed? Hornswoggled?” –he’s soon at it again at the behest of “pal” Oscar (Jack Weston), tunnelling through to the bank for the criminal gang. Johnny’s weakness is assuming others are as well-meaning as he, and his quest for knowledge, understanding and reciprocity leads him to bookstores (“Major input!”), galleries (he is mistaken for a modern art exhibit) and the Church.

Jonny 5: Yes input from The Bible, Koran, Upanishads.
Priest: Yes, well I take The Bible myself.

The latter is interesting, in as much as Johnny enters by direct invitation (“Can someone direct me to the answers, please?”) and is initially soothed by the priest’s promise that he has an immortal soul… Only for man of the cloth’s admonishing “You don’t play games in the House of God!” when he discovers Johnny is a robot.

Johnny has, after all, been granted a soul by God (a divine spark – he was struck by lightning). It’s not for nothing that Johnny is afflicted with an existential dilemma, then, one he seeks solutions for through reading and rereading texts on the same (Frankenstein, Pinocchio) or trying but failing at “Mixing in with all the other living bipeds”. The emphasis that this is somehow ordained from on high – Johnny was a SAINT robot, after all – is further emphasised when he captures Oscar, who in defeat asks “What are you? Punishment from God?

Johnny 5: Please allow me to demonstrate the law of centrifugal force!

Johnny 5 thus represents a sentient robot in a manner we can all get on board with. Of course he should be America’s “first robotic citizen”, granted “the same rights and privileges of any citizen of this nation”. Who would disagree? There’s even a scene in which – pointedly so, given her male colleague’s bemused response – a female exec at the firm interested in purchasing Johnny tuts “That’s all we need. A robot who’s into equal rights!

Such an innocent and innocuous upbeat ending to a kids’ (well, family) movie barely merits attention, does it? Perhaps it does, in retrospect, with various proposals (European parliament, various US departments) to confer legal status on AI. The knock-ons for this are, of course, all things to be deeply suspicious of, not least the transhumanist creep (where is the line drawn on what constitutes humanity?) This also raises more mundane and practical boundaries (what is the effect on the human workforce, pushed aside to make way for the AI/robotic one? Who is it who benefits, with the corporations – already granted legal status – controlling the AI, freshly granted legal status?)

Our sympathy for Johnny is milked by not one but two near deaths, the first where he is savagely beaten up by Oscar and his stooges. And then, having defeated Oscar, he requires revivification via a defibrillator. This climactic scene finds a welcome humorous boost through the use of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding out for a Hero; there’s a sudden glimpse of how the film might have benefited by a more playfully self-referential approach and confident visual style.

Johnny 5: One whose person is under control of another as master is a slave!

A number of continuity fudges from the original have been noted (Ben changes his surname and is no longer a US citizen). The main issue, though, is Johnny’s freedom of movement. There’s a scene in which Fred attempts to sell Johnny, and it’s noted that Nova Robotics went bankrupt. But how likely is that a sentient AI would be allowed to roam free by TPTB. The answer is “kids’ movie!

Johnny 5: I think the chauffeur did it.

Johnson made a “not all lizard oppressors are bad” TV show (they may eat mice, but Robert Englund was a friendly ghastly reptile invader), so it’s interesting that he should make a “robots are our equals” pledge picture, however benign it seems. This was his first feature, a curious departure for someone in the business since the ’60s; it suggests, whatever his aspirations, that Columbia saw Short Circuit 2 as a cheap cash-in quickie, one illustratively shot in Toronto (Johnson would direct one other cinema movie, Steel, with Shaq).

Johnny 5: Oh wow! Input! Mega-bytes of input!

There have been various remake iterations in development over the years. The latest (as of 2020) has a Latino twist. Huzzah! Latinx Johnny 5! Johnny 5 embroiled with cartels! Johnny 5 illegal border crossing! And there I was, hoping they’d bring back Fisher Stevens (if the mooted version comes to pass, slim hope for an actual Indian actor in the Ben role, per Stevens and Azari’s discussion).

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