WarGames (1983)

18 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s a little tough to review “WarGames” without pointing out that this film is more like a time capsule from the 1980s. The technical aspects within the film’s story are really dated with how our computers worked back then, as opposed to the tremendous upgrades decades later. In fact, every year, our technology is growing more impressive, with new and expensive ways to advance our technology. We, as mankind, have gone pretty much to the point where we can’t progress without our computers, which is why many people were paranoid about the theory of Y2K.

But there is that fear that while our technology is advancing as time goes on, it could be getting to the point where it winds up destroying us. (Not that I believe it—how does technology expect to take over mankind if my cellphone keeps acting up on me?) That is why the story of 1983’s “WarGames,” still in the time of the Cold War, is still engaging and thrilling, even if its technical aspects have grown dated. It’s an entertaining film and an effective cautionary tale.

It opens brilliantly with a great teaser scene, in which a launch test brings about the tensions of being in charge of what could lead to a nuclear launch. The two men at the hand (played by Michael Madsen and John Spencer) don’t know that their current job is just a drill and they panic as they confront the possibility that they could be starting an international nuclear attack by order. It’s a brilliant scene—it sucks you in and keeps you on edge. However, the movie that follows doesn’t quite bring about what to expect from this opening.

Fortunately, “WarGames” gets on track as it leads to an action (as a reaction to the two men) that leads to the real story. And we’re already drawn in to see what’s coming next.

NORAD is relying more on computers for evaluating and preparing for nuclear attacks, so John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and a few other experts are called in to bring in a supercomputer named WOPR. It has a system that plays war games and strategizes appropriate responses to crises.

Enter our protagonist David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a teenage computer hacker who can break into the school’s computer network from home and change his failing grades to passing grades. Along with his girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), David is able to sneak into the WOPR system through a backdoor. David and Jennifer find some pretty interesting games in the computer and decide to play one particular war game called “Global Thermonuclear War.” But what they don’t know is that while playing this game, the computer is taking over NORAD and scaring the agents into nearly launching a strike.

McKittrick tracks down young David and forces into an interrogation. David’s story doesn’t sound convincing to him. McKittrick can’t believe that this high-school kid caused this chaos by himself and thinks he might be a spy. But David knows for sure that the computer is continuing to play the game on its own and force NORAD into launching DefCon1, resulting in Armageddon.

The tension that comes with the well-produced 1983 reality is outstanding. The idea that one little act from a high school kid has the possibility of an even bigger problem (for all of mankind, no less) is an uneasy one and “WarGames” handles it effectively, with a mix of intrigue and complexity. The film starts out fun, as David and Jennifer are playing with their computer before coming across all of this. It evolves into something more complex.

There’s also a fascinating sci-fi edge to it, as the computer is learning as it continues to play the game. David at one point asks the computer, “Is this a game or is it real?” The computer responds, “What’s the difference?” It’s thinking on procedural rules, not ethical ones. This leads to a tense climax in which David and the original creator of the machine, Dr. Falken (John Wood) must attempt to force it into learning that this game should not (or cannot) continue. And they have to do it before time runs out…

What also stands out in “WarGames” are the performances, particularly from Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, and John Wood. Broderick has a nice blend of cockiness and innocence that makes us sympathize with David. Sheedy is the kind of girlfriend teenage geeks hope for—cute, fun, and willing to listen to you talk about your computer skills. Coleman is sardonic but ethical as McKittrick, and Wood, showing up late in the movie, has an effective speech about natural selection.

That speech, by the way, is the setup for the climax. Dr. Falken makes that speech to David and Jennifer, after learning that they’ve played with his creation and is willing to accept his fate so that something else will rise after humans. David retorts by stating that it shouldn’t be this way if there’s a way to stop it.

The only thing I don’t like about the movie is the music score. With its overblown orchestral tune, it just sort of grows annoying. That aside, though, “WarGames” has a thrilling story with good acting and execution, and is a genuinely moving thriller. A lot of it may be dated, but it’s more of its time and can’t be complained about.

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