From “American Reunion” to “Fright Night,” remakes of 1980s and 1990s films have taken their lumps on the big screen lately. But the director behind the new iteration of “Short Circuit” is taking a rigorous approach that he hopes will help his movie avoid the reboot trap.
Tim Hill, the “Hop” helmer who has been hired to direct the film, says that his take on Johnny No. 5 -- of course, the weapon-turned-cuddly-companion from the 1986 hit -- will resonate in this era of drone warfare.
“The thing that makes it so relevant is that we live in this age of robots, particularly when it comes to war,” Hill, also a longtime writer on the television series "SpongeBob SquarePants,” told 24 Frames. “We have drones that do our fighting for us, do all these jobs men and women don’t want to do. And that’s what makes this so interesting -- things like this moment in the story when Johnny realizes he’s going to be disassembled and contemplates death, and whether it’s right to terminate someone else.”
He paused, “These are heavy themes for a family movie," he said, anticipating a reasonable reader's reaction. "But I think they can have their place.”
John Badham’s comedy classic told of Johnny, a Cold War weapon who attains a form of consciousness after being caught in a lightning storm. Starring Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens as the scientists who create Johnny, the film ironically takes a human turn when animal-lover Ally Sheedy befriends the rolling robot.
The new version will recast the Sheedy role as a teenager or preteen, Hill said, in part because it gives the movie a family-friendly angle but also because it adds a wish-fulfillment dimension not present in the original.
Hill said the robot protagonist will, however, retain the wide-eyed tone of his forebear -- “like an infant struck by lightning, and you see human foibles reflected in him.” (The new version is being developed at Dimension Films, the Bob Weinstein-led unit that acquired the rights a number of years ago. Hill and various writers are working on the script.)
To prepare for the movie, Hill, a polymath who is one of the more eclectic director voices out in Hollywood, has been reading up on modern robotics, ticking off in the interview a few academic texts he has been studying.
But he added that one doesn’t need an advanced degree from MIT to appreciate the issues he hopes to raise.
“If you look at kids and how they adopt machinery, it’s just getting tight and tighter,” Hill said. “We're just becoming more connected to our machines. That’s why I think this can say more about our relationship with technology than the original ever did.”
And how will the new Johnny look in an era when technology has become ever more compact (and, it should be noted, Pixar’s “Wall-E” has offered its own cinematic take on a humanoid robot)?
“I’m tempted to go back and grab the original,” Hill said. “But I think it has to be closer to what modern design actually is. There are computer models and labs developing real machines like this. We want to do something like that.”
And despite the wide-eyed qualities to Johnny, a little menace wouldn’t hurt, either.
“You’ve got to find the balance between something fierce and something endearing,” Hill. said. “The original was cute. But no one was threatened by it.”
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Ally Sheedy and Johnny No. 5 in "Short Circuit." Credit: TriStar Pictures