I hadn’t seen WarGames since I was a kid and didn’t expect much from it when I watched it for the first time as an adult. I tend to hate eighties movies, which isn’t to say I hate all movies which were made in the eighties. I just hate movies which are quintessentially eighties-ish. Yeah, some of the John Hughes stuff was all right, but it’s nothing I really want to watch again in the twenty-first century. (Sorry, Ducky. Sorry Long Duk Dong. Sorry Emilio Estevez’s career.)
I’m thankful to say WarGames is not just an eighties movie. It’s not Ferris Bueller Hacks NORAD, which was my preconceived notion of the film. The promotional material leads you to believe that’s what they’re selling, but Hollywood isn’t known for its truth in advertising.
The movie opens in a missile silo. Two regular guys are faced with the task of keeping an eye on their assigned launch station. We’re led to believe they never thought they’d be faced with actually having to push the button—it’s just a job to them, showing up and looking at the blinking lights while they make idle chitchat. What human being could possibly accept what it really means to push the button? Not many summer blockbusters bother to ask that question. The ones that do don’t get it right.
This one did.
That’s when the unimaginable happens: they’re ordered to launch without warning. And what happened next actually had my heart pumping. Pure and simple, the name of the game is suspense. Here, nuclear war is not just a convenient plot device. The appropriate understanding and horror of this warfare is conveyed before we even see the title screen.
The two men in the missile silo fail to launch the weapon, so the brass at NORAD make the decision to take humans out of the equation all together. A super computer would have all the capabilities of a human to push the button, with none of the conscience.
Next we’re taken through a series of seemingly conventional Hollywood setups. Seventeen year old David Lightman (Mathew Broderick) is a somewhat popular kid who spends a lot of time in his bedroom, messing about with his modem-enabled Imsai 8080 mircocomputer, which I hope is in a museum somewhere.
His high school love interest is introduced, whose character is usually only hinted at but never really fleshed out. It doesn’t matter because she seems like a real girl and I didn’t think her interest in David ever came off phony. After all, David has the power to hack into their high school’s computer and change their grades. What girl wouldn’t consider a guy like that a catch?
One day David is leafing through a magazine when he discovers an advertisement for an upcoming computer game. I had no idea mysterious, Kojima-like hype-generation existed back then, but apparently it did in this movie’s version of 1983. The ad promises the best video game ever made, but you’ll have to wait until Christmas time to see what it is. David refuses to wait. Instead, he commands his computer to dial every phone number with the same area code as the video game company. The idea is his computer will provide him with a list of every computer connected to a modem in the area. If he’s lucky, he’ll find one with the secret video game on its hard drive.
David thinks he finds the computer he’s looking for and launches a game called Global Thermonuclear War. What he’s really playing, however, is the super computer at NORAD. Now that I’m faced with explaining it, it seems so needlessly complex and convoluted, but the movie handles it so well you’ll barely notice: the super computer is an artificial intelligence that plays war games 24/7, constantly learning, constantly predicting the enemy’s preemptive strikes and countermeasures so that it’ll be ready for the real thing.
The problem is, there is no enemy and the super computer is already ready for the real thing. There is no good and evil, either. The computer is only doing what it thinks it’s supposed to be doing when it decides to launch an actual global thermonuclear war. Which plucks this film from the usual cat-and-mouse thrillers we’re so accustomed to.
Thankfully, the message is not one of technophobia, nor is it as blandly simple as “nuclear war bad.” Rolland Emmerich, as well as the producers of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, should take note: you don’t have to be so painfully stupid and obvious when you make a movie like this. Being smart does not negate the ability to entertain your audience.
Movies should be fun, no ifs ands or buts. WarGames occasionally insults the intelligence (micro-cassette recorders can be hacked to open keypad-protected doors?), but it’s fun and cleverly so. If anything, it really captured the attitude of real life hackers who, if you think about it, are the kinds of people who gave us affordable microcomputers and the Internet to begin with. There are some things I didn’t like about the movie, notably the stereotypically nerdy computer specialists who help David crack NORAD’s backdoor password, but the climax of the film is unlike any I’ve ever seen. It hit me hard and it stuck with me. I only wish more movies in the genre were so high above taking the easy way out: explosions and gunfights.