Since I’m at PAX Prime this weekend, I am posting this Speculative Fiction Saturday review in advance. This is a film with video games as a big part of the storyline. I will have to tell you this was one of my favorite movies back when I was a teenager, and I would have to say there is an influence that I can sense today, not just in me, but other films as well.
WarGames was not only a film that jumpstarted Matthew Broderick’s career, but it addressed something that we all fear: nuclear war. The film opens with two men who are controlling nuclear silos, and the codes come in for them to turn the keys to begin World War III. One of them just can’t find it in his heart to do it, and the other pulls a gun on him.
I didn’t like how the scene suddenly ended, but it cuts to a group of generals and other military uppity-ups at Cheyenne Mountain. Apparently, this is some big military place that really exists, the headquarters for NORAD (North American Aeorspace Defense Command). The military men, along with a man named McKittrick (Dabney Coleman), who believes that it would be better if relays replaced the flesh-and-blood men that might defy an order from on high.
As it so happens, McKittrick has developed a computer system known as the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), which is programmed to run all kinds of nuclear war simulations. And, if you haven’t seen this film yet, just watch it on Netflix, because I did the other day, and it is even better than I remember it, even if it is somewhat dated. I’ll go ahead and post the rest after the jump.
Matthew Broderick’s character, David Lightman, is a Seattle teenager who wants to play a game before it comes out. He then uses his early eighties home computer technology to try and break into what he thinks are computers in Sunnyvale, California. Eventually, it hits a computer that has some games on it, not knowing it is connected to the WOPR.
David, in attempt to impress his girlfirnd, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy, who also had a big career in film) by playing a game called Global Thermonuclear War, unaware that at Cheyenne Mountain, the screens are showing what they believe is a real attack by the Soviet Union.
The sad part is that the military can’t seem to understand whether or not the images at Cheyenne are real or some kind of WOPR simulation playing out. Naturally, this makes them scared, and they arrest David, and he believe him to be some kind of spy, maybe.
Now, I will have to admit that the way they bring in David into custody is foolish. Their is a scene where McKittrick leaves Lightman alone in a room with a computer, all alone. Naturally, Lightman uses the computer to discover that the original programmer of the Global Theronuclear War game, Stephen Falken, is still alive, and he and Jennifer find him. If something like this were to happen, especially after 9/11, David would have a one-way trip to Guantanamo Bay.
Eventually, David, Jennifer, and Dr. Falken fly back to Cheyenne, and manage to get into the stronghold before the big door closes as the United States goes to Defcon 1. What is interesting is that Falken can see the simulation isn’t real, so the United States simply does not fire back. This gamble pays off, and it looks like a victory until the WOPR computer decides it wants to launch missiles on its own.
There is a scene at the end that doesn’t really make sense, as the WOPR tries to break these missile codes. It does it this odd way where it seems to be trying all these codes at once, but it also seems to be trying them one character at a time, and breaking it one character at a time. That’s not how breaking codes works.
There is also a very seizure-inducing scene at the end where the WOPR has to learn that a nuclear war cannot be won. It involves Tic Tac Toe, as that game often can’t be won. Actually, there is this one way of doing it where you can win it every time, but it’s good the computer doesn’t figure that one out.
I have to say that this movie means a lot to me personally. I first saw this before I went to the sixth grade, and at the time, I didn’t know what a nuclear bomb or a nuclear war was. I had no idea that at any given time, there could have been a full deployment of a nuclear payload to destroy the world as we know it. Looking back, I still think it a miracle that the cold war never boiled over.
The interesting aspect of WarGames is how it shows how accidental a nuclear war could begin. It also shows the relevance of keeping certain things always manned with humans, as you want that human and not machine presence making decisions. This isn’t the first time a computer has gone mad, and WOPR has a kind of Hal 9000 along with a Darth Vader vibe. It even has this really creepy text-to-speech voice that wasn’t even common for computers to have back then.
WarGames was also a film that embraced the video game culture with open arms, as video games were a crucial part of the plot. It also dared to compare computer games with the games that the real military was doing at the time. This is why it is one of my favorites from the early eighties, and it shows that there is a light in the darkness.