“Number Five is alive!”
I was very young when I first saw Short Circuit. But I never forgot this line from the film. For years afterward, I called the movie “Number Five Is Alive” because I did not know what the actual title was of the film.
Short Circuit centers on a set of robotic droids built to help soldiers in combat, if not outright replace them. At the beginning of the show, the five robots with humanoid torsos and tank treads (instead of legs) perform in front of American military officials and the company’s owner, as well as U.S. senators and other high ranking representatives.
The exhibition goes off without a hitch, the machines blowing up their military targets easily. Bad weather moves in, so the executives, senators, generals, etc., take the party inside. The owner of the company then calls the maker of the robots, a man named Newton, and orders him to join the party and help sell his creations.
Newton does not want to mingle with senators and generals. He does not want his robots to be war machines. He built them because he thinks robots are the way of the future and will make life easier for everyone. His buddy (played by Fisher Stevens), coaxes him out of his office and the two join the party.
Meanwhile, a pair of technicians is getting the robots primed to go back indoors. They have unplugged four of the five, but before they can unplug the fifth robot, lightning strikes a set of nearby power lines, and the energy surges through the wires into the diagnostic computer of one of the techs…as well as the fifth robot.
For a minute, the techs are sure they are “so fired!” (Nice one, Stan Lee!) But, when they check out Number Five’s electronic systems, they find nothing fried, melted, or damaged. So they send the five machines inside the building.
Robots one, two, three, and four all head in to their rest areas. Meanwhile, Number Five ends up smacking into a wall. Thus discombobulated, he follows a waitress robot (which looks like a trash can) through the back corridors of the building. He gets lost and lands on a garbage truck, which takes him out of the company’s factory/lab and into San Francisco!
Well, this is a whole new world for Number Five. He calls the lab, asking for “input,” so that he can learn about the world around him. However, his question confuses Newton and the other scientists. Why does Number Five want input? How come he is putting images of billboards hyping Coca-Cola, gasoline, and other things on their computers when he asks for “input”?
They figure out pretty quickly that Number Five is no longer in the lab. The company’s president has a panic attack, since the machine still has his weapons on him, and they are active! So he sends the company’s militaristic chief of security after Number Five. The Chief is happy to oblige. He does not like the robots, hates the idea that they will someday replace real soldiers, and he cannot wait to blow one of them to smithereens.
Newton manages to reign the company president and chief of security in long enough to extract a grudging promise from them: they will not destroy Number Five, but shut it down and bring it back to the lab so he can study it.
In the meantime, Number Five continues on his way into San Francisco. He ends up in the food truck of Stephanie, a young lady who rescues injured wild animals and injured domestic animals or pets from owners who can no longer afford to keep them. Her house is literally bursting with animals: cats, at least one dog, birds, kittens, one (maybe) skunk, mice, chickens – you name it, odds are she has it.
The only problem Stephanie really has is her last boyfriend. He has been harassing her for a while, threatening to take her animals from her and get her in trouble with the authorities. He is doing all this in an attempt to hook up with her again.
Stephanie is not having it. This guy, Frank, absconded with her savings to buy himself a Firebird. All he wants out of her is her money. Once bitten, twice shy; Stephanie chases him off with a baseball bat, then goes into her house.
That evening, she hears noises coming from her van. So she goes out to confront whoever is inside, thinking it is Frank come back to bother her some more. Instead, she finds Number Five, locked and loaded because of the threats she’s been shouting at “Frank.”
Stephanie is ecstatic to find Number Five. Like most people (*cough* NOT *cough*) she thinks that she has finally met an extraterrestrial who got lost somewhere between the Andromeda Galaxy and Jupiter. She coaxes Number Five into her house, showing him the television and letting him read her encyclopedias. (This scene is a real hoot!)
The next morning, Stephanie finds Number Five still watching the TV. She shuts it off; he turns it back on. They play this game a little more, and then Number Five shows off how much “input” he has gathered from her books. He points out and scientifically names the cats, the mice, the raven, the pasta, the pots and pans, the stove. In doing so, he makes a bit of a mess. To keep him from wrecking her house, Stephanie leads him outside to watch the sun rise over the bay.
Number Five is enchanted with the sunrise, as well as a cloud. “Cloud!” he says excitedly. “Butterfly! Rhinoceros!”
He goes on to list several other things and Stephanie realizes that, like any young child, Number Five has named the things he thinks the cloud resembles. (Myself, I did not see a rhinoceros.) While outside, Number Five accidentally attracts the attention of Stephanie’s three-legged dog, who chases him off the balcony.
Luckily, Number Five lands in the chicken coop. No chickens are hurt, and neither is he, as he starts listing scientific facts about the chickens from the encyclopedia. But while he’s down, Stephanie notices the name of the company that built him impressed on his torso.
Stephanie is very upset that she has not met an extraterrestrial but in fact has rescued one of this “warmonger’s” toys. So she calls the company – which lost track of Number Five when he got out of range of their scanners – and they promise to give her a reward for finding the robot. They also say they will send someone by to pick up Number Five, take him back to the lab, and disassemble him.
Well, all worked up, Stephanie goes out and tells this to Number Five. Number Five takes the news just fine, then spies a grasshopper. He watches it hop away and, like a child, hops after it. Hop. Hop. Hop…
Stephanie reprimands Number Five for killing the grasshopper. “No problem, Stephanie,” Number Five says cheerfully. “Stephanie reassemble!”
“No, I can’t,” she replies. “It’s disassembled. It’s dead. Once something’s dead, it’s dead.”
“Dead?” asks Number Five. He looks at the smushed grasshopper. “Dead? Disassemble? Dead – disassemble! NO!!! No disassemble! Stephanie, NO DISASSEMBLE!”
Number Five, Stephanie learns, is now in a panic because he thinks that, once the company disassembles him, he will die. “You can’t die,” she says, though only half-heartedly. “You’re a machine. Machines don’t die.”
“No, Stephanie,” Number Five says softly. “Number Five is alive!”
The rest of the movie shows the adventures and travails that Number Five and Stephanie go through trying to convince Newton that Number Five is not longer just a machine. He is actually, really and truly, alive. At one point, when Newton and Stephanie are talking, he says, “It’s not alive. It’s a machine. It’s just malfunctioning!”
Stephanie replies calmly, smiling as she speaks, “Life is not a malfunction.”
Even today, I still love watching Short Circuit, though it has some mild language in it. Number Five is a great character, as lovable as R2-D2, but easier to relate to, considering his speaks English and does not whistle or beep too much. The mistakes he makes, the way he talks – it is all just perfect!
Of course, there is one other thing about this film that I really like. I did not know when I first saw the film just how important the words “Life is not a malfunction” were. But I do now. So yes, “Number Five is alive!”
But, just as importantly, “Life is not a malfunction.” It’s the greatest gift in the universe.
So it is no wonder Number Five does not want to be “disassembled.” How can you enjoy a gift if it is stolen from you?
Until next time, readers!
The Mithril Guardian