June 3, 1983
A mere three weeks after John Badham’s BLUE THUNDER, he came out with another movie that is in awe of, but also a cautionary tale about, then-newfangled technology that (as one would assume) seems very crude from the perspective of 40 years later. This one is WARGAMES, and the technology is computers – both home computers used by high school hacker prodigy David Lightman (Matthew Broderick in his second film, after MAX DUGAN RETURNS) and a more fantastical experimental A.I. (though that’s not the term they use) created by eccentric genius Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood, later in LADYHAWKE with Broderick).
David is well known to the vice principal due to his “attitude problem.” He gets kicked out of class for an actually very high quality smart ass response to the teacher, who writes “ASEXUAL” on the board and asks who came up with the idea of reproducing without sex. He hears the class laughing at something David whispers, and asks him to repeat it.
“Your wife,” David says.
Sent to the office, David sneaks a look at a paper taped to the desk next to a computer with passwords written on it, goes home and uses his modem to log in and change his grade, along with those of classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy, in her second movie after BAD BOYS), who he doesn’t know very well, but she happens to have given him a ride home on her motorbike. I like that this movie allows for the hero getting a ride from the hot girl, instead of the other way around.
David is very advanced in his home computer set up. Some of the fun of watching the movie now is seeing all the cool, clunky monitors and room-filling, light-bulb-covered government super-computers. We get to see floppy disks bigger than I ever remember seeing them, dot matrix printers, etc. According to Wikipedia his computer is something called an IMSAI 8080. He’s programmed it to progressively dial all the phone numbers in Sunnyvale, California checking for a modem signal, to try to find the server of a company whose games he likes. He connects to one he thinks is what he’s looking for, but in fact it’s a supercomputer at NORAD called WOPR (War Operation Plan Response, or “whopper”). So when he later figures out a backdoor password and chooses “Global Thermonuclear War” from a list of what he thinks are games, he’s actually starting a sophisticated simulation that NORAD at first mistakes for World War III.
WARGAMES is the other movie I remember seeing in the summer of ’83 besides RETURN OF THE JEDI. Its climax has stayed in my mind, maybe just through cultural osmosis, maybe through catching parts of it on TV over the years. If I ever watched it all the way through since the theater I think it would’ve been pre-DVD. So it was interesting to watch again and see the part that I forgot, the part that’s a teen movie. Babyfaced Matthew Broderick charming Ally Sheedy with his nerd-mischief, sincerely trying to distance himself from her when he realizes how serious of trouble he must be in, receiving her help anyway.
It’s funny – when the feds figure out who this kid is who cracked into their computer they say he fits the profile: “bright kids, no friends…” And that might be true, I don’t think we see him with anyone else, but he has this hot girl coming over to his house, who is painted as the opposite of a computer nerd because she jogs, does aerobics, and takes a dance class. I like the little glimpse into her life where she tells him she’s supposed to be an extra on a workout show – laughing at herself because it seems so silly to talk about in the middle of all this.
David graduates from hacker to proto-MacGyver when he’s being interrogated at NORAD, is locked in a room, and comes up with a clever (and plausible? I don’t know) way of jamming the lock with some rewiring and a recording of the pass code tones. Then he pre-McClanes through a vent and sneaks out with a tour group. For some reason after all that, when he called the operator trying to find the mysterious possibly-not-really-dead creator of the WOPR, I thought, “Wow, this kid is much more capable than I was. He sounds like he calls the operator with questions all the time.”
David and Jennifer do track down Dr. Stephen Falken on a private northwest island. He’s now obsessed with dinosaurs, has a radio controlled pterodactyl, makes them watch an old stop motion dino film, claims not to care if we go out like they did. He tells the kids they can sleep over since they missed the last ferry, but they decide to go out and try to figure out a way to leave. They even consider swimming. They could’ve been lounging together in a nice basement with lots of cool dinosaur stuff. Fools!
The part with the helicopter hovering over shining spotlights on them was very familiar to me. BLUE THUNDER type shit. I was thinking it would be funny if it wasn’t the authorities but Falken’s way of saying, “Hey, I changed my mind, and I’m a weird rich guy so I have my own helicopter and I can give you a ride!” Sure enough, that’s what it is. One nitpick though, it would be even better if the pterodactyl followed behind them like a little buddy.
I think there’s a narrative weakness that after David shows up at NORAD with the doctor so they’ll finally listen to him the kid gets sidelined for a while, at least until he comes up with the idea of making the computer play games. And when that happens Falken seems to think of it at the same time, so David might not have been needed.
But of course you can’t complain too much about the structure when it builds to the whole reason the movie is remembered – the computer’s realization that Tic Tac Toe is a sucky game and so is thermonuclear war. (It’s a good thing it wasn’t Tic Tac Dough. That might be too fun of a game.) WOPR, also called Joshua after Falken’s dead son and the backdoor password he chose, doesn’t differentiate between the two because he doesn’t understand life, and therefore doesn’t understand consequences. An interesting counterpoint is Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman, ROLLING THUNDER), a human who presumably does understand those things, yet he’s so steeped in his militaristic, nationalistic bullshit that he has just as hard a time at it. In the opening he kind of plays like the wise one, trying to make the clueless bureaucrats see the flaws in their system for launching a nuclear counterstrike. But the flaw is that a human being wasn’t willing to push the button that would’ve ended the world. What a disaster. If this had been real, only we would be dead, not the rest of humanity. Unacceptable!
I appreciate that Coleman is allowed to play it like the good guy, no mustache twirling. Because there are plenty of those people in positions of power, masquerading as good guys. Seriously, fuck that guy.
The following is not a criticism, and presented for informational purposes only. In the movie, David and Jennifer are supposed to live in Seattle, but they go to Snohomish High School, which I think is actually the name of the high school my dad went to, but it’s about 30 miles from Seattle, so it would be hard for them to go back and forth on her motorbike. The exterior of the school in the movie is actually in El Segundo, and the interior in L.A. According to IMDb there are some actual Washington state locations used, and according to the 1995 book Seattle on Film by Randy Hodgins & Steve McLellan the exterior of the Psychology Building at University Washington is where David goes to visit his hacker friends played by Eddie Deezen and Maury Chaykin. The only actual Seattle I noticed was a couple second unit establishing shots looking across Elliot Bay from West Seattle, but that’s cool because it’s looking right at the neighborhood I’ve lived in for 20+ years.
Oh – and one dumb little thing I’d say they got wrong (even though she’s joking) is when Jennifer asks, “What kind of an asshole grows up in Seattle and doesn’t know how to swim?” Most of the water around Seattle isn’t swimmable, so if most kids here do learn to swim (I have no idea if they do) there’s nothing geographic about it.
The idea of WARGAMES started when screenwriter Lawrence Lasker saw a special about Stephen Hawking and imagined him befriending a bright juvenile delinquent who would become his successor. While developing the script with co-writer Walter F. Parkes they met futurist Peter Schwartz of the Stanford Research Institute, who told them about a growing subculture of young computer geniuses.
In a 2008 retrospective in Wired, Parkes says that they always pictured Falken as John Lennon, “because he was kind of a spiritual cousin to Stephen Hawking.” Furthermore, Lasker claims that “through David Geffen, we’d communicated with John Lennon, and he was interested in the role.” I question how serious “interested in the role” is, but, uh… imagine that. If John Lennon hadn’t been killed, but was a guy who was in WARGAMES and shit. A different world.
Originally Martin Brest was hired to direct, but the producers fired him after 12 days of shooting. Badham watched the footage and determined that it was too tonally dark, too much of a conspiracy thriller, and thought the kids needed to be having more fun. It seems to me he found a pretty good balance.
Brest moved on to BEVERLY HILLS COP. Lasker later wrote PROJECT X, TRUE BELIEVER and AWAKENINGS, as well as SNEAKERS with Parkes. Parkes became the head of DreamWorks.
I think of WARGAMES as an entertaining movie, but I didn’t know it was acclaimed enough to be nominated for Oscars for cinematography, sound and original screenplay. It lost to FANNY AND ALEXANDER, THE RIGHT STUFF and TENDER MERCIES. Nevertheless, it lives on on cable, and in its influence on the rise of hacker culture. It’s pretty good, even though I’m more of a BLACKHAT guy.
Signs o’ the times: Many chunky computers and computer accessories, modem sounds, drinking Tab, a scene at an arcade where we see many video games including Ms. Pac-Man, Tron, Jungle Hunt, Zaxxon, and (apparently David’s favorite) Galaga. Michael Madsen is in it and his hairline is so different I didn’t recognize him at first.
Tie-ins: A WARGAMES video game was released for ColecoVision, then Atari and Commodore 64. I guess it was similar to playing Global Thermonuclear War from the NORAD side. In 1998 PlayStation and PC had a game called WarGames: Defcon 1. In 2008 there was a DTV sequel, which I will be reviewing tomorrow.