This Week in 1986: 'Short Circuit' Comes Alive

As movies about adorable robots go, 'Short Circuit' (released 25 years ago this week, on May 9, 1986) wasn't exactly a masterpiece, but it's a fondly remembered film that proved influential in ways its creators probably never imagined.

Originally, director John Badham's film was going to be a relatively serious Cold War techno-parable, along the lines of his 'WarGames,' but it evolved into a kid-friendly comedy about a drone weapon automaton called Number 5 that, when struck by lightning, develops intelligence, a personality and a fondness for pop culture. Comic pro Steve Guttenberg was enlisted as the robot's inventor, and Ally Sheedy (of 'WarGames') played his love interest, an ice cream truck driver who takes in stray animals and assumes that the runaway Number 5 is a stranded alien. (No wonder, since, with his big eyes, flat head, squat body and ability to learn English from a few hours of watching TV, he resembles E.T.)

Also along for comic relief is Fisher Stevens, in what today seems a squirm-inducing brownface performance as an Indian scientist prone to funny malapropisms. (Incredibly, the 1988 sequel 'Short Circuit 2,' centered on Stevens' character, with Guttenberg and Sheedy sitting it out.) Aside from the unseen Hank Azaria voicing Apu on 'The Simpsons,' it's hard to imagine a performer getting away with this today.

Since 'Short Circuit,' we've seen the robot-weapon-develops-a-soul plot several times (most memorably in 1991's 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' and 1999's 'The Iron Giant'). And the design for Number 5, by movie robotics master Syd Mead ('Blade Runner,' 'Tron') has also proved influential; it's hard to imagine Pixar's big-eyed, squat, 'Hello Dolly'-loving droid WALL-E without the precedent of "Johnny" 5.

There's been talk for years about rebooting the franchise. Last we heard (which was a year and a half ago), director Steve Carr ('Paul Blart: Mall Cop') had signed on to direct. Beyond that, however, there's been little indication that a new Number 5 is alive.

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This Week in Movie History

1907 (May 12): Katharine Hepburn is born in Hartford, Connecticut. She will go on to become one of the most celebrated actresses in film history, winning a record four Oscars for her leading roles in a career that lasts more than 60 years.
1963 (May 8): The first James Bond movie, 'Dr. No,' is released in America. It makes Sean Connery a star and becomes the most celebrated action movie series of all time (and, at nearly 50 years and counting, one of the longest-lasting).
1977 (May 10): Joan Crawford dies at 72. The screen icon's legacy was a long list of legendary performances in such melodramas as 'Mildred Pierce' (for which she won an Oscar) - and a lifetime of bitterness in daughter Christina, who alleged that her mother physically and emotionally abused her in 1979's 'Mommie Dearest,' the first major celebrity tell-all memoir.
1998 (May 14): Frank Sinatra dies at 82. Besides being the 20th century's premier pop singer, the leader of the Rat Pack, and the Chairman of the Board, he also acted in more than 50 movies, including 'From Here to Eternity,' which earned him an Oscar.

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays

It's a good week for birthdays if you're a 'Pulp Fiction' fan. Ving Rhames turns 50 on May 12, while Tim Roth does the same two days later. Harvey Keitel turns 72 on May 13.

Break out the birthday pie cake for Jason Biggs on the 12th, when he turns 33. That's also the birthday of Stephen Baldwin (45) and Emilio Estevez (49). Robert Pattinson, who doesn't look a day over 100, turns 25 on the 13th, which is also the 34th birthday of fellow Brit Samantha Morton. The 14th, which sees Cate Blanchett turn 42, is also the birthday of directors George Lucas (67) and Robert Zemeckis (60).

Earlier this week, the 9th saw five birthdays. Albert Finney and Glenda Jackson both turned 75. Candice Bergen turned 65. Director James L. Brooks turned 71. And Rosario Dawson turned 32. Biggest milestone of the week: Don Rickles' 85th, on May 8.

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'Bridesmaids' - Trailer No. 2


'Bridesmaids' (R)

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Melissa McCarthy
Directed By: Paul Feig
What's It About? Wiig plays a woman who agrees, with misgivings, to be maid of honor at the wedding of her best friend (Rudolph). Among Wiig and the other bridesmaids, rivalries ensue, as do gastric disturbances, drunken exploits, and other pre-marital mayhem.
Why Should You See It? At last, a 'Hangover' for the ladies! Actually, between 'SNL' all-stars Wiig (who also co-wrote the movie) and Rudolph and bromance-king Judd Apatow (who produced), the raunchy-but-sweet comedy credentials of this group are pretty impeccable.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'The Hangover,' 'Sex and the City,' 'Walking and Talking'

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
Video Interviews With the Cast and Filmmakers | On the Set
Why the Success or Failure of 'Bridesmaids' Will Set the Tone for Female-Fronted Films
No Men Needed: Great Female Buddy Movies

'Priest' (PG-13)

Starring: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Stephen Moyer, Maggie Q
Directed By: Scott Stewart
What's It About? It's an adaptation of the Korean comic about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by wars between humans and vampires. When his niece is kidnapped by bloodsuckers, Bettany's holy man breaks his vows and sets out to rescue the girl with the help of priestess Maggie Q and lawman Gigandet.
Why Should You See It? Bettany has said the filmmakers wanted to make vampires scary again (after the friendly, sexy, moody vampires of 'Twilight' and 'True Blood'). Judging by the footage released so far (the vampires appear more alien than human), mission accomplished. Also, nobody plays badass men-of-the-cloth like 'The Da Vinci Code's' Bettany.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Legion,' 'Daybreakers,' 'Resident Evil'

Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | Trailers | Reviews
Interview: Paul Bettany

In Limited Release

'Everything Must Go,' an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, stars Will Ferrell in a straight dramatic role as a salesman who loses his sobriety, his job, and his wife on the same day. All he has left are the possessions she's tossed out on the lawn, turning his life into an impromptu yard sale.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Cinematical's Review | Interview: Will Ferrell

'Hesher' stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a tattooed, shirtless, headbanging pyromaniac who becomes the unlikely friend of a bereaved boy who's just lost his mother in a car crash. Natalie Portman co-stars as a geeky supermarket cashier who doesn't realize she looks like Natalie Portman.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome

'Thor' - If 'Hesher' isn't playing in your area, here's another movie in which Natalie Portman plays a geek who meets a long-haired, muscular, dangerous man of mystery. Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | IMAX | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Jumping the Broom' - It's like a Tyler Perry comedy without Tyler Perry. All the fun of a family squabble, without that really tall guy dressed up as Grandma. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Something Borrowed' - In case you can't get into any of the other wedding-themed movies playing in theaters, well, this is the one to see. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

Staying In This Weekend?

New on DVD: How do you like your movie romances, gritty and realistic, or light and frothy? If you prefer the former, there's last winter's drama 'Blue Valentine' (Buy or rent the DVD), starring Ryan Gosling and the Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams as a couple whose relationship is traced from their cute courtship to their bitter split, with blunt sexual and emotional frankness. If that sounds too bleak, there's January's comedy 'No Strings Attached' (Buy or rent the DVD), starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as a pair of busy careerists who try to have a sex-only relationship without falling in love. Either way, it's young, pretty Hollywood actors heating up the screen, though only 'Strings' qualifies as a date movie, while 'Valentine' is more likely to provoke an argument between you and your loved one. More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: Ten years ago this week (on May 11, 2001), 'Priest' star Paul Bettany had his breakthrough role in 'A Knight's Tale' as Geoffrey Chaucer, not-yet-famous medieval author, who falls in with a would-be jousting champion (Heath Ledger) and his entourage. At the time, the film was seen as a silly, gimmicky sports comedy, and it was tarnished by its inclusion in the David Manning scandal (Manning was a fake movie critic invented by distributor Sony to provide glowing review quotes on ads for several Sony movies). Still, the movie was underrated, more clever and funny than it had a right to be, with Ledger showing the charisma and leading-man chops that would blossom in his later roles. The cast had so much chemistry that 'Knight's Tale' writer/director Brian Helgeland reunited several of them the next year in occult horror movie 'The Order.' A decade later, Bettany is still playing renegade men of letters, co-star Mark Addy has been promoted from squire to king (on 'Game of Thrones') and Ledger has, like his character in 'A Knight's Tale,' entered the realm of myth and legend. Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: You probably saw 'How to Train Your Dragon' last year, since the cartoon proved to be a delight for all ages, rivaled only by 'Despicable Me' and 'Toy Story 3' among last year's top toons. If not, here's your chance to check out this tale of a wimpy Viking lad (Jay Baruchel) who stumbles upon a novel way to deal with his homeland's dragon infestation without resorting to violence. It was released in 3D, but it still looks terrific in 2D. It debuts on premium cable this weekend (HBO, Saturday, 8PM). Check your local listings

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.