WarGames (United States, 1983)

April 18, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
WarGames Poster

If nothing else, WarGames is a great "time capsule" movie. Although many of the themes and concepts forming the foundation of John Badham's 1983 thriller are hopelessly out-of-date, this is one of the best films from its era to illustrate not only what Cold War era paranoia felt like contemporaneously but how "cutting edge" computer technology was entering the mainstream. The overriding premise of man ceding too much control to computers is more relevant today than it was a quarter of a century ago. In 1983, the scenario postulated by this movie could not have happened - computer control of National Security was not that advanced. However, in 2009, there is nothing far-fetched about what occurs in WarGames. Computers run the world. Failure of the national power grid in 1983 would have resulted in major inconveniences. A similar crash today would mean a catastrophe of the highest magnitude. Why? No power, no computers. So, as dated as aspects of WarGames may seem a decade into Century 21, it remains an effective cautionary tale (not to mention an entertaining piece of summer fluff cinema).

The teaser scene is phenomenal. It depicts the escalating tensions that accompany being one of the men in the final chain that leads to a nuclear launch. In this case, it's just a drill, but the men (played by Michael Madsen and John Spencer) don't know that. They must confront the morality of obeying an order that could lead to a worldwide holocaust. It's a taut scene that is suffused with verisimilitude. I have no idea if this is how things work in the real world, but the sequence is produced in such a way that I was convinced. The rest of WarGames doesn't quite live up to the opening, but this is a great way to draw in viewers. In the wake of their spotlight scene, the Madsen/Spencer characters are out of the picture as WarGames re-adjusts its focus.

Today, the greatest threat to computer networks comes in the form of viruses and worms. Things were simpler in 1983. The Internet, which has been around in one form or another since around 1969, was in an embryonic form with limited, specialized uses. The biggest security risk was from hackers direct-dialing into dedicated phone lines. Often, all that stood between someone with a modem and an unauthorized entry was a password, and many passwords were easy to crack. While the infiltration suggested in WarGames might seem ludicrous in a 2009 environment, it accurately reflects 1983.

NORAD is going electronic, with experts like John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) arguing for an increased reliance upon computers in analyzing, planning for, and responding to nuclear attacks. His pride and joy is a sophisticated supercomputer named WOPR (a.k.a. "Joshua") that spends hour after hour playing wargames and simulating the best responses to a variety of potential real-life crises. When an unsuspecting high school hacker, David (Matthew Broderick), and his friend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), sneak through a backdoor in WOPR's firewall via David's home computer, they accidentally set into motion a series of events that result in Joshua playing war games for real. The computer takes over the silos and prepares for a pre-emptive strike. Racing against time, David and Jennifer contact Joshua's reluctant "father," Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood), in an attempt to avoid DefCon 1 and the resulting Armageddon.

The closer WarGames sticks to 1983 reality, the better it works. The more it moves into the realm of science fiction (with the computer "learning" and gaining an almost HAL-like sentience) or action/adventure (chase scenes), the less credible it is. WarGames is at its most effective when it follows the early misadventures of David and Jennifer and less compelling once David has been taken into custody. At this point, the film turns into a variation on the Keystone Cops (represented by government and military officials) being overmatched by a smart kid. In this battle of David vs. Goliath, there's no question who's going to win since no one in the audience believes Badham is going to destroy the world. (Badham is not Michael Bay, who destroys things for spectacle's sake.) Despite that, however, there's still a fair amount of tension inherent in the final act as the digital clock ticks down to zero and the world edges closer to the event that many in the era felt was inevitable.

For the two young leads, this represented a stepping-stone from virtual anonymity to recognition. This was Mathew Broderick's second film (his debut, Max Dugan Returns, had arrived in theaters less than three months prior to WarGames). It's an auspicious performance - the same mix of cockiness and naïveté that led to his being accepted as the title character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off works for him here. Ally Sheedy came to the movie with more experience than Broderick, but almost all of it on television. For her, WarGames would represent a shift in her career. Less than two years later, she would officially be a member of the "brat pack." Here, she's the perfect "girl next door" (or at least the girl computer geeks hope will move in next door).

The production had a rocky beginning, with original director Martin Brest fired in the early going, but not before he had started filming. John Badham was brought in as an emergency replacement. At the time, Badham was a relatively high profile director, having made Saturday Night Fever and the Frank Langella/Laurence Olivier Dracula. After WarGames, he would steer Short Circuit and Stakeout before falling out of favor. Badham, who started his career in television, eventually returned there. Since 1998, he has dozens of credits to his name - all on TV. His last feature film was 1997's Incognito. While WarGames doesn't represent an opportunity for the director to shine, the workmanlike results are noteworthy considering the obstacles he faced. He coaxed effortless performances from the neophytes in his cast, crafted a thriller rich in suspense, and provided a solid draw for the teenage audience that was flexing its summer box office muscles.

To me, the most enjoyable aspect of WarGames is when David is at work on his computer system. There's something wonderfully nostalgic about watching a guy play with such antiquated machinery (an 8" floppy drive and a 1200 baud modem with phone cradle) and recognize that it was considered state-of-the-art at the time. There's also a nice, unforced chemistry that develops between Broderick and Sheedy during those early scenes. The underwritten boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, so common in mixed-sex high school friendships, stands out because of the performances. As tensions escalate and the action becomes more frantic, the subtleties of how these two interact loses importance (their first kiss is more satisfying than the one they share at the end). This is one of those movies when it's possible to argue that the setup is superior to the payoff. In fact, Joshua's climactic "realization" feels a little like something out of a Star Trek episode. It works, but not as well today, when we know a lot more about computers than we did 25 years ago. WarGames is dated but, unlike with many other films from its era, that's an attractive quality rather than a deterrent.

WarGames (United States, 1983)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 1983-06-03
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1