Logan’s Moving Picture column discusses the brilliance of a sequel that was a cable mainstay for most of the late ’80s and early ’90s; Short Circuit 2!
Of all the things my brother and I shared a love of, none was more puzzling (to outsiders at least) than our fondness for somewhat maligned sequels. So much so that it birthed a short-lived podcast called Podcast 2: The Sequel. It was meant to be a platform for only discussing the second films in both popular and unpopular series’. It was Ryan’s show, and sadly he just couldn’t maintain it. We used to brainstorm about all the weird flicks he just HAD to talk about. Of all his failed creative endeavors, this is the one that saddens me the most. I still think it’s a brilliant idea.
The biggest of those adored second films was probably Back to the Future Part II, not an unpopular movie at all, but very few people hold it in the high regard that Ryan and I do. It was a frequent reference on our Mr. Robot podcast, mainly because the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, constantly threw it into episodes. But it gave us a chance to blather on about our appreciation of it, so we were happy to have it.
Sure, we loved all the well-regarded sequels as well, the ones people hold up to prove that original films can be improved on; the Empire’s and the Dark Knight’s. But really, our hearts were with some of those that got relegated to the metaphorical bottom row of the rental shelf. We loved them as much or often more than their predecessors. To name a few; Major League 2, Predator 2, Halloween II, Another 48 Hrs, Caddyshack II, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (one of our Christmas movie outings), Young Guns II, House II: The Second Story, Breakin’ 2: The Electric Boogaloo, and of course, this week’s watch, Short Circuit 2.
Gun to my head, I don’t think I could have recalled the detailed plot of 1986’s Short Circuit; the best I’d be able to come up with is “Johnny 5 is alive, takes a car apart, and also Steve Guttenberg and Alley Sheedy.” Adversely, I remembered Short Circuit 2 so well that before it even got to the scene with the Los Locos street gang, I was chanting their catchy little theme song to myself repeatedly. This was a movie we watched almost religiously as kids; possibly because it’s a bit sillier and more juvenile than the first entry, or maybe because it’s just entirely more fun? I guess I’d have to rewatch the first one to verify those claims, but why do that when I can watch Short circuit 2?
I couldn’t help but be immediately struck by the insanity of Ben (played by Fisher Stevens) selling these fairly elaborate robotic toys on a street corner to try and make ends meet. It’s as if his robotics degree and obvious intelligence wouldn’t have landed him something better! By the mid-‘90s this guy would have lost his government-funded job only to become a Dotcom millionaire overnight. Instead, he’s making highly detailed robots by hand and selling them on the sidewalk. Fortunately, it happens to be ridiculously close to a toy company looking for the next big thing, right before Christmas at that! It’s a bizarre set of circumstances that could only befall someone living in a late ‘80s sequel.
And of course, I can’t help but hope that the nostalgic toy/collectible market that is forever draining money from our pockets finds its way around to this series of films. We need a Johnny 5 toy. A detailed, elaborate, articulated figure that’s possibly remote-controlled by an app and also includes an abundance of his phrases. We got all manner of similar things from the Star Wars Franchise post-Disney, I can only hope it eventually finds its way back to Johnny 5.
Note: Logan’s pontifications have been wished into existence…
I was also amazed to discover that Kenneth Johnson had directed this film, and wanted desperately to have that conversation with my brother about that fact. Surely as kids, we didn’t have an inkling of who he was, but a bit later in life Ryan would become a very big fan of his work, particularly of his TV outings. V (which predated this) and of Alien Nation, which immediately followed it, Ryan love Alien Nation. He also directed Steel, the Superman spin-off starring Shaq, but that’s probably a discussion best left un-had.
I found myself completely caught up in the movie, which just unfolds as a mish-mash of different formulaic genre plots. A fish-out-of-water story, a heist movie, an underdog film, family comedy, vague sci-fi tropes with a shoehorned romcom in there. Watching it now I couldn’t help but think if they’d picked a lane and just went for it we might have gotten a third entry into the franchise, but the kid in me loved every second of them cramming square pegs into round holes.
Even the kinda-cringy accent Fisher Stevens affects didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of it all. I don’t think that I’m the one to make the call that it might be racist, I’m not even sure it’s ever established where the heck he’s supposed to be from, so maybe that skirts the issue? But, I don’t think it’s something that would fly today, which may be a good thing. The only part of it that would really get me laughing every time was his misinterpretation of idioms. Even the ones I remembered, I always found myself smiling.
There’s definitely plenty of bad in this movie though, just not in a way that’s truly insulting. More in a way that somehow makes it more endearing all these years later. It’s just got so much heart, and it’s anchored by three solid performances; the aforementioned Stevens, Michael McKean’s loveable sleazebag watch salesman Fred (when Johnny starts calling him Derf…it just got me; I need a Fred in my life to call Derf) and chiefly Tim Blaney’s vocal performance of Johnny 5.
Blaney has a vast history as both a puppeteer and voice performer, but Johnny 5 is primarily what launched that career. It made my heart swell to see he’d also worked on Flight of the Navigator, another long-time childhood favorite of ours. I really can’t say enough about the humanity he brings to Johnny 5, giving him the soul the movie absolutely hinges on.
There’s just so much joy here, wrapped up in this weird, lame duck of a movie. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s heartbreakingly sweet, and it addresses humanity’s underlying cynicism in a way that isn’t ham-fisted or hokey. It’s every positive thing I remember from my childhood.
Unlike The Fifth Element, I don’t have to re-evaluate anything or wonder exactly why my brother was so fond of it. It’s honestly the same reason we loved films like The Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, Adventures in Babysitting, or Monster Squad. It’s about found family. It’s about being out of your element, being the outcast, and still coming through, persevering, and even gaining some respect, for yourself and from the people around you. It’s an underdog story, but not one born out of the love or desire to play a sport or be part of a team, but just to be accepted and surrounded by people who care and appreciate you for who you are.
Rewatching this was like reliving a part of my childhood that I’d forgotten, and weirdly enough served as an extension of things I talked about after rewatching The Fifth Element. The part filled with hope and infinite possibility for the good things that can and will come. Yeah, you might meet people who are out to use you, or people that disregard you altogether, but it doesn’t mean you give up. Sometimes you just have to let them live in their darkness, and sometimes, if we’re luck, those same people come back around to the light.