Hollywood has rightfully made a big show of distancing itself from its blackface legacy, a tradition that stretched from the full-tilt racism of The Birth of a Nation all the way to Laurence Olivier’s 1965 version of Othello, not to mention the grotesque caricatures many black performers were forced to inhabit. But surprisingly little mention is made of brownface, the equally unpleasant practice of having white actors creep a few shades darker than usual, donning bronzer or maybe just getting a serious tan, in order to portray Latin, Native American, or Asian characters. Maybe it’s because it’s still going on to this day (seen recently in The Big Wedding and currently with Johnny Depp’s turn as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, although rarely in as baldly ill-advised fashion as in Short Circuit and it’s 1988 sequel, which finds Fisher Stevens going Sub-Continental as Indian robotics engineer Ben Jahveri, Quik-E-Mart accent, goofy mannerisms, and all. Putting aside the fact that most modern-day portrayals of Indians still haven’t moved very far beyond these rote stereotypical trappings, the film’s cartoon presentation of this character seems alien to an otherwise open-minded, tender movie, its kid-aimed messages on the fragility of life and the importance of acceptance backed up by surprisingly solid filmmaking.
The fact that this cultural insensitivity comes off as unfortunately wrongheaded rather than directly odious is evidence of the film’s otherwise firm gentleness, a fact that simultaneously makes its stereotyping more insidious and also easier to write off as pure poor judgment, rather than malice. Despite its many shortcomings, Short Circuit 2 is surprisingly well assembled for a summer sequel to a movie about a talking robot, which is something most reviewers couldn’t be bothered to notice upon its release (although Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it a somewhat fairer two thumbs up.). There’s nothing revolutionary going on here, and the basic accomplishments are diminished in comparison to something like Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which Joe Dante turned into a masterpiece of unhinged, anarchic aggression. Yet befitting its mixed reputation, the film stands out as both a paradigmatic example of how to gently ease into an unnecessary sequel (strong fundamentals, inspired set pieces and tech design, developed main characters) and how to push far enough on negative aspects to nearly cancel out those foundational positives.
Most of these bad decisions can be ascribed to an overeagerness to please, which results in too many broad touches, from the hackneyed Rolex-dealing hustler played by Michael McKean to Johnny Five’s easy John Wayne impressions and Three Stooges references. It also gives rise to the dreadful brownface routine, which is linked to the further unfortunate choice of depicting Ben as a malapropism spewing, socially awkward Asian alien. The character gets more dynamic function than in the original film, where he acted as a side joke and comedic foil to Steve Guttenberg’s leading man, but the addition of a romantic subplot and the narrative frisson between Ben and Johnny—two aliens struggling with their outsider status—is undercut by the staleness of the stereotype and its portrayal by a white actor. Beyond this, Short Circuit 2 is further hamstrung by bad decisions that also seem baffling, like the faux-Manhattan setting, which may be the most egregious Toronto-for-NYC substitution ever committed to film, made even more exasperating by how brazen it is in using clearly faked locations, and how little the New York surroundings have to do with anything that happens here.
The only explainable reasoning is that the laws of sequel escalation demand moving the action to the most famous city in the world, and though in this and many other things the film seems to be beholden to pointless, crowd-enticing standards it’s mostly setting for itself, there’s no reason it has get as dumb as it does at times. Mostly, it proves that filmmaking can be technically accomplished, narratively sound, intermittently heartwarming, and generally humorous and still not work. The movie’s initial critical failure seems largely to be a consequence of writers prejudging a superfluous sequel, and writing it off entirely ignores a few really nice bits, like the long, wordless toy robot roundelay of the opening sequence, or the family connection between Johnny Five and WALL-E, another anthropomorphic drone who was able to convince audiences of his own innate individuality. The film’s director (proud enough of his product to append “A Movie by Kenneth Johnson” as the first credits tag) doesn’t imprint any real stamps of individual personality, but he brings a steady baseline of craftsmanship to something that could have been totally half-assed, and it’s these glimmers of technique, many of them hopelessly intertwined with the grating fixation on widespread viewer appeasement, that make it both intensely likeable and desperately flawed.
There are similar issues with Johnny’s story (continued by original writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson), a spin on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, with the sentient robot presented as a naïve seeker who finds himself used, flim-flammed, and hornswoggled by every person he meets. Aimed at exploiting the robot’s innate tendency to take humans at their word, these frauds are pulled off with simple tricks (teen gang members who trick him into boosting car stereos), slimy ingratiation (the crooked bank employee who cordially recruits Johnny into digging an “escape tunnel” into a bank vault), or subtle imposition (Ben commits him to mechanistic slavery to get a load of Johnny Five toys out on time). Much of this is ridiculous (the gang appears in matching graffiti-smattered denim outfits and sings their own theme song), but 25 years on, that ridiculousness now works in the film’s favor. The very things that make the movie seem the most dated, from the casual racism to the wide-eyed fear and awe of the gritty big city, go hand in hand with the unfashionable sincerity and compassion that keep it endearing.
Short Circuit 3 is the sort of kid-friendly, mass-audience-seeking movie that, if released today, would have tried to play off its shortcomings with ironic distance, noisy clatter and special effects; in short, it would have likely turned into Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Instead, while Short Circuit 2 may be dumb, there’s no slickness or meanness to that stupidity, which makes the hokiness disarming rather than disappointing, and means that the moments of real pathos (unbearably agonizing to my child self, and still painful to watch now) hold up; a scene where McKeans’s character ruins his beloved silk shirt to tourniquet a dying robot is more emotional than it should have any business being. It’s difficult to speak of bygone simplicity and vanished craft without resorting to dewy-eyed nostalgia, but it’s worth noting that this is a film whose flaws are all out in the open, not masked with mockery or sarcasm, and where the ugliness is only skin deep, a strangely complicated legacy for what’s mostly remembered as an unnecessary, misbegotten misfire.
Jesse Cataldo can be found on Twitter at @JesseCataldo.