WarGames (1983)

I suppose that the more time goes on, the more dated WarGames becomes, not only because of the archaic technology employed within the movie, but also in the Cold War nuclear politics that were still quite all-consuming during the Reagan era, released in the same year that the president would refer to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” and Americans would become scared in their home at seeing the result of a nuclear war in the TV movies, “The Day After”.  However, even taking into account the contrived leaps of logic and the impossibility of such an event ever taking place, it’s a thought-provoking way for the youth of America to understand not only the danger of hacking, but also that the annihilation of the human race might only be minutes away at any time, and might be caused by something as random as a computer glitch.  It feeds into the anxiety that we still feel about the reliance we have on our use of computers for the most critical of operations, and how someone with enough hacking skills could, and presumably eventually would, put all our lives in jeopardy by getting access to things that could do great damage upon the populace, perhaps none more extreme than the annihilation of life on Earth as we know it.

Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Cable Guy) memorably gets the lead role as smart-alecky high schooler David Lightman, a computer geek from Seattle who spends a great deal of his time trying to figure out ways to hack into places for his own entertainment, or to do such delinquent deeds as changing his own grades in the school computers.  His latest goal is to discover how to get into the computers at a gaming company to play their latest big game before it comes out, but he unwittingly ends up inside WOPR (War Operation Plan Response; pronounced “whopper”), the new top defense computer the Pentagon has at its disposal in their NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) facility.  Presented with a list of games to play, David is especially intrigued by one entitled, “Global Thermonuclear War”, a simulation of US vs. USSR nuclear war scenarios.  Alas, what started out as a game seems all too real, as WOPR takes over the systems at the NORAD project, and the folks there aren’t sure if it is all a game or if the Soviet missiles that appear to be poised to wipe out the US means World War III is imminent.

Although WarGames is mainly viewed as a juvenile sci-fi adventure today, it was taken with serious consideration at the time of its release, thanks to the prevailing fear of nuclear war, in addition to the vast majority of the public not yet knowing of how such things as modems and computer databases actually work.  The weightiness of some very real issues led to it earning three Academy Award nominations, including Best Writing for the screenplay by Lasker and Parkes (they would revisit the hacker theme in a future film, Sneakers).

Interestingly, the screenwriters didn’t start with the ideas of hacking and nuclear annihilation in mind; their original draft, initially titled The Genius, would be about a Stephen Hawking-esque genius in a wheelchair (who they hoped could be played by John Lennon, who did express some interest in the role prior to his untimely death in 1980), who mentors a juvenile delinquent to would bring out some of his ideas to light.  In their research on what brilliant but not exactly lawful youth were into at the time, they stumbled upon the world of video games, phone phreaking, and computer hacking, and the story began to morph into what it eventually became.  Coupled with a real-life news story they had seen where the United States had believed they could be under nuclear attack when someone had left a tape of a simulated attack playing on a computer in NORAD, they had the building blocks in place for what a young hacker could do on a larger scale if he altered the nature of what the military could see on their computer screens.  Even with a crackerjack script, the subject was too new and not readily understood by those who run movie studios, making it a hard sell as they shopped the script around.  The only studio who agreed would be United Artists, who attached Martin Brest to direct.

Unfortunately, once Brest was on board, the project went into an upheaval.  Brest envisioned WarGames as a dark and cynical political thriller, in contrast to the lighthearted tone of fun and teen adventure that Lasker and Parkes, who were commissioned to make changes to their script before they were let go, were bringing to their original story.  Universal Pictures, however, weren’t really feeling Brest’s vibe in the Spielbergian era, thinking that this kind of film-making had run its course in the 1970s and would fail to connect to modern audiences.  After three weeks of shooting and not feeling what Brest had been delivering, the studio replaced him with John Badham, who came with some acclaim for his work on Saturday Night Fever and Whose Life Is It Anyway?, who ended up bringing back Lasker and Parkes with a revised script (punched up from the likes of screenwriters Walon Green and Tom Mankiewicz) they had worked on for Brest, punching up the dialogue to make it funnier, while Brest would find his instincts better received by going on to direct the even more wildly successful Beverly Hills Cop the following year.

Although some aspects are admittedly dated, WarGames still manages to be a riveting and intelligent thriller, with some terrific performances from a cast of very appealing actors.  Matthew Broderick makes for a perfect reluctant hero, playing like a bright boy next door as you’d find in almost every neighborhood, which furthers the feeling that certain calamity could come at any time from any corner of the globe.  Superb character actors fill in the supporting roles, including fantastic parts for Dabney Coleman (Nine to Five), Barry Corbin (Who’s Harry Crumb?), and John Wood (Sabrina) as the only men with the power to stop world destruction, if they only had a clue.  Ally Sheedy (Amnesia) also shows early signs why she would become one of the most sought after actresses of the next several years with an effervescent portrayal of Broderick’s would-be girlfriend, Jennifer.

Along with HAL in 2001: A Space OdysseyWarGames solidified into the public psyche the unease of allowing computers to grow too sophisticated in its artificial intelligence, to the point where an uncaring, highly calculating “being” begins to make decisions for us, and sometimes to us, as The Terminator would strongly suggest when released the year after WarGames.  For many viewers, this film would also represent their first exposure to the notion of hacking and the building blocks of the internet, and the relative ease, in the comfort of one teenager’s bedroom, to be able to access, and even alter, information in the database of his own school, an airport, and, eventually, a highly secure and powerful government computer designed in a way that few that work with it can understand or control.

The fear drawn out by WarGames at the time resulted in a number of high-profile news stories that questioned whether our computer defenses could be breached to the point where someone could cause mayhem and potential destruction by tapping into high security controls.  The interest in the subject grew so large that congressional hearings on the matter took place as to whether fantasy is close to reality, using clips from the movie to accentuate various concerns.  It all ultimately manifested into some early proposals of various government controls placed on network access, the seeds of the internet, in order to try to keep secrets secret and controls under the control of those who are authorized.  The elders in congress assumed that teenagers knew how to use technology in ways they lacked the know-how or experience to comprehend, so some regulatory restrictions and punitive actions for willful trespasses were deemed as needed to keep government and businesses safe from the crafty youth, many of whom were inspired to buy a modem and tool around, perhaps even try to hack, by the very film that meant to be a cautionary tale.

By today’s standards (at the time of this writing, the year 2018), we realize that the danger lies not in computers becoming too intelligent, or in curious teenage hackers just looking for a challenge, but in the government institutions themselves who use cyber-warfare to affect the world.  While global thermonuclear war may be a bit far-fetched, the headlines of 2018 are full of notions that an adversary of the United States used cyber-attacks to influence opinions through fake social media accounts, to sow distrust in one another by setting up organized rallies that draw in stirred-up protesters in conflict to one another, and to hack and release damaging information to try to destroy one political opponent in order to put into the presidency a candidate that they deem would be more favorable to their country’s interests.  That’s something that would not even be on the radar as something that could ever happen in the world of 1983, but emphasizes that the Cold War is dead, and the Cyber War is alive, well, and shows no signs of dying any time soon.

In order to properly enjoy WarGames, you have to overlook some glaring plot holes, a number of leaps of logic, and some outright inaccuracies (the nature of NORAD is far too expansive than reality, as well as the way the military makes executive decisions to launch nuclear missiles).  One includes the “voice” of Joshua, the persona given to the artificial intelligence component of the WOPR computer system, using a device that converts written text to voice for the benefit of David (though it is really for our benefit in the audience). As David goes from talking to Joshua in his bedroom to the folks in the military command center, somehow the ability to hear that voice transfers with him, despite leaving his device at home.

However, the pace is taut, the characters very likeable, and the balance of humor and tension is spot on, such that suspension of disbelief will likely be achieved by most as the film enters an intense and suspenseful finale that shows just how effectively that the pieces were put together for a thoughtful and quite unnerving look at the fragile state of our existence on this planet, and how easily it can all come to an end through our own folly, and our reliance on fallible technology to protect us.  Credit director John Badham (Blue ThunderAmerican Flyers) for keeping the energy and action flowing just fast enough to never dwell on anything long enough to notice, as we go with the flow for the sake of the nicely constructed thriller aspects.  Ultimately, we are rewarded with a gripping climax, with the fate of the world in the balance, nicely visualized by the set design and special effects teams.

WarGames would prove to be a huge hit, garnering nearly $80 million at the US box office on a $12 million budget, placing fifth overall for the year.

WarGames is flawed if you’re looking for realism, but is still quite entertaining, delivering interesting theories out of preposterous ideas in a way where you almost believe it could actually happen.  As a historical document, it’s all hogwash, of course, but as a movie, WarGames firmly rooted itself in the public psyche of the early 1980s, showing young and old alike how the brink of destruction could be closer than we would have ever imagined possible.

Qwipster’s rating: A-

MPAA Rated: PG for mild language and mild violence
Running Time: 114 min.

Cast: Matthew Broderick, Barry Corbin, Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Maury Chaykin, Eddie Deezen, Michael Madsen, John Spencer, William Bogert, Susan Davis
Director: John Badham
Screenplay: Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parkes