by Mel Valentin
"WarGames," a computer /sci-fi geek classic, was released in the summer of 1983 to audiences increasingly receptive to the still new personal computing market. Borrowing its central conceit of a super-advanced, possibly sentient supercomputer from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the lesser known, little seen "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (released in 1971), "WarGames" tapped into then current fears and anxieties about the Cold War and a non-winnable nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. With its teen hacker/hero and an out-of-control supercomputer on the verge of setting off World War III, "WarGames" simultaneously expressed the hopes and optimism surrounding personal computing and the fear that technology, if left unfettered, would ultimately bring death, destruction, even extinction.WarGames set the standard for the teen/geek hero. David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a socially awkward, underachiever in high school by day and near-brilliant computer hacker by night (brilliant by 1983 standards, of course). His parents, (William Bogert and Susan Davis) have no clue about David’s after-school activities. Frankly, they don’t seem to care. When Lightman isn’t playing Galaga and Galaxian at his local video arcade, he’s illegally hacking the school’s computer system and altering his grades (he’s failing at least one class). The geeky, socially awkward David still manages to attract romantic interest from Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), a high school acquaintance interested in David and the world of personal computers.
"A geek-cult classic that fully deserves its rep."
In an attempt to find new, unreleased video games from a software company located in Sunnyvale, California, Lightman sets up a dialing program to hack into any computer system that answers. With Jennifer looking over his shoulder, Lightman discovers an unregistered computer system that promptly hangs up on him after recognizing David as a “Dr. Falken” asking for log on information. Lightman heads to the local library and does some research, ultimately deciphering the password, and getting in. Lightman uncovers several games, including a war simulation game, “global thermonuclear war.” Intrigued, David agrees to play the computer at the other end of the phone line.
Lightman doesn’t know, of course, that he’s playing the world’s (then) most sophisticated supercomputer, the Weapons Operation Plan Response (WOPR) computer based in NORAD’s Cheyenne, Wyoming base that’s been put in control of all the nuclear missiles possessed by the United States military. Once Lightman and WOPR begin playing, however, bells and sirens go off at NORAD. The officers and scientists there, led by General Jack Beringer (Barry Corbin) and Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman), think that the Russians have decided to start World War III by unilaterally launching their nuclear missiles at the United States and its allies. Even after McKittrick and Beringer discover that WOPR is running a war game simulation (and find the connection to Lightman), they’re not prepared for the worse: WOPR will continue to play out the scenario, up to and including launching live nuclear missiles, until it “wins” the game.
Co-writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes certainly did their research into computer geek culture, so much so that they revisited the subject 11 years later with Sneakers. Credible as WarGames was and, to a much lesser extent, still is, it was also meant as a cautionary tale, as an anti-nuclear war polemic for mainstream audiences. Whether they say WarGames as simply entertaining or took Lasker and Parkes’ message to heart is another matter. Everyone (or anyone sensible) agreed that the consequence of nuclear war, widespread death and destruction, radiation poisoning, so-called nuclear winter, were, on some level, unthinkable. Yet we did think about nuclear war and the U.S. government war-planned multiple scenarios in which the U.S. survived, albeit in a much reduced state.
Laudable anti-nuclear war message aside, WarGames still holds up twenty five years not because of the long outdated technology used by Lightman and the other characters in the film, but, at least in part, because Matthew Broderick was perfectly cast as the ur-geek, the first geek to lead a Hollywood film to box office success (Tron didn’t fare as well just a year earlier. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Broderick had Ally Sheedy, the soon-to-be Brat Packer (The Breakfast Club) as his co-star. The director, John Badham (Bird on a Wire, Stakeout, Short Circuit, Blue Thunder, Dracula, Saturday Night Fever), a late replacement for Martin Brest (Midnight Run), deserves credit for keeping a firm grip on the screenplay, keeping expository scenes to the necessary minimum, and ratcheting up the tension and suspense as needed.Ultimately, though, "WarGames" manages to stand the test of time. Along with a handful of other science fiction films made and released in the early 1980s, "WarGames" raised the already high bar for mainstream science fiction, mixing a thought-provoking storyline with enough suspense to keep audiences guessing as to the final outcome. Lasker, Parkes, and Badham were fairly optimistic, though. They saw reason and logic as the way out of the existential dilemmas the United States and the Soviet Union created for themselves and the world. Just a year later, a little known filmmaker named James Cameron would direct "The Terminator," a science-fiction actioner that took its cue form "Colossus: The Forbin Project’s" dire denouement: the machines we create to help and protect us are the same machines that cause our extinction.
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originally posted: 07/30/08 13:00:00