Who’s Johnny?

When, as an adult, you watch a beloved film from your childhood, you must resist the temptation to cringe and apologize on behalf of your younger self. Such is the case with many movies; personally, no film was as disappointing to me as an adult as Spielberg’s Hook (“Rooooooooooo-fee-ooohh!” “Run Home Jack!”), which went from dearly loved classic to exhausting pablum before the second act break.

This was not the case for Short Circuit 2.

As a child, I cried when the crooks beat viciously beat Johnny 5; as an adult, I wondered how much cocaine fueled the arc of that particular scene (SNORT–“And then he uses that radio thing, which totally looks like Brent’s dick–ha ha, fuck you Brent, shrimp dick!–to call a radio airplane and then he runs the airplane up the guy’s ass!” SNORT). A child can probably be forgiven for thinking this movie was awesome because it has a fucking talking robot in it; only the most boring and annoying kid would be like “I hate robots.” And, according to the Wikipedia page for the film, which contains useful links to some old reviews, some of the critics of the day viewed the film charitably¬†(not the case for Mr. Canby of the New York Times, who claims that Johnny 5 is “singularly charmless”), and thus forgave what was essentially a children’s film for sucking so hard. I mean, this is a movie that relies upon the idea that an advanced robot with artificial intelligence would not be able to keep its memory if turned off, which was something even my piece of shit Apple IIe could do (if only I had the 16KB of¬†my amazing mystery stories from that period to prove it).

Yet I think they may have missed something. Stupidity and plot-holes aside, this film is dark. Sure, it’s dressed in children’s clothing, and the robot says and does comically stupid things, but upon further inspection its rather like the time that Kramer got Mickey to stand in for the kid he was supposed to be babysitting. That is to say, it’s a cynical, gruff-voiced man with several divorces behind him and not much of a future in medical acting.

The entire film is an affirmation of consumer capitalism, which is not evil in itself and only solidifies the movie’s cred–seriously, check out Michael McKean’s Gordon Gekko impression at the end of the movie and then try to argue that they didn’t know what they were doing–but the real problem is that the movie presents as its thesis the idea that the individual must subsume their identity to the flow of capital. Johnny 5 “dies” to protect the assets of a faceless banking corporation (and, in a feudal touch, the aristocratically named Vanderveer Collection of diamonds) that would have insured the assets anyway; moreover, his death is rendered completely pointless by the simple fact that the police already knew Oscar had stolen the diamonds–there was a very low probability of Oscar successfully fencing the diamonds or leaving the country. Thus, Johnny 5’s sacrifice was largely pointless (literally pointless, as it turns out, because he didn’t actually sacrifice anything). Symbolically, however, his “death” is important for two reasons: 1) it serves to demonstrate that the proper approach toward the protection of capital is human sacrifice, and 2) it serves to resurrect Johnny as a fully-functional piece of the capitalist machinery. Why, he’s even proclaimed a human by the U.S. government at a citizenship ceremony! This proclamation (odd in its own regard and reminiscent of the federal government’s other rather problematic attempts at defining what constitutes a human being) retroactively affirms the humanity of his sacrifice and subsequently affirms the idea that such sacrifice is the proper relation one ought to take toward capital.

The film is consistent in its thematic treatment of the individual vis-a-vis capital, as the first time we see Johnny 5 he’s been reduced to a consumer product–a toy for sale to the highest bidder. The highest bidder then enters in the form of Sandy, who works for a toy company and will try to get her company to buy the toy (this also serves as an awkward way to shoehorn in a romance; personally, my adult self thinks the more progressive choice would have been to make the romance between Johnny 5 and Michael McKean’s character, Fred; also, the funnier choice). Alas, Benjamin and Fred run into production troubles when they find their warehouse has doubled as a thieves’ den, and they can’t meet their production goals until Johnny 5 arrives and rapidly constructs an idol of himself, which he quite admires. Johnny 5 is alive and appreciates the replication of his likeness for profit. The accumulation of capital is incompatible with any sense of ethics.

Arguably, the entire film is a weird critique of consumer capitalism; one need only assume the writers’ intention was to demonstrate the flaws with reducing humanity to a vessel for the accumulation and distribution of capital, and the subtext converts itself into a progressive, fly-under-the-radar piece of cultural criticism in the guise of summer entertainment. Yet I do not think a straightforward reading of the film supports this idea, and I find myself wondering how a film so cynical and dark could possibly have been pushed through as a light, summer sequel.

And then I remember: cocaine is a hell of a drug.

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