"I take orders from the Octoboss."

WarGames

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.

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15 Responses to “WarGames”

  1. Great write-up, Vern. I watched this movie, REAL GENIUS, and DAWN OF THE DEAD constantly on VHS in my early teens. The dialog to all 3 of them runs thru my head constantly.

    A quick shout out to my man Barry Corbin as the General in this. Just like Coleman, a lesser movie would’ve made him a 100% Pure-dee asshole full-time but instead sure, he’s a hard case who doesn’t put up with a lot of bullpucky, but he secretly smiles at Broderick making his co-workers look like fools and then gives the A-OK to let Matthew sit at the terminal in the last act and save this goofy, mixed up world.

    He would’ve been a fresh faced recruit fighting in Korea raised on anti-Commie prop, and then witness to his men (kids, really) getting killed in the lawnmower of Nam for years. Now he’s kicked upstairs to NORAD baby-sitting a bunch of vacuum tubes and surrounded by bean counters and neck beards – and here comes this Broderick kid with more guts and brains than the whole mountain put together. You gotta laugh to see it.

    And I’m sure right after the fade out at the end of the picture, he turned in his retirement papers and headed out to a quiet ranch somewhere. Happy Memorial Day, General Beringer, wherever you are.

  2. I’ve watched this so many times over the years. And I think at heart it works so well because of Broderick and Sheedy. They both have immediate chemistry with each other, but their characters are written in ways that avoid the common tropes of teenagers in movies. Broderick’s David is a bit awkward, but he’s also not a shy nerd. He’s confident and can even cause enough of a ruckus to get in trouble at school. And sometimes girls actually pursue the guy, even in high school. They’re the perfect mismatched couple.

    I’ve always been curious about the direct to video sequel, so I’m looking forward to that review. In addition to the 1984 video game, there was a real time strategy game that was loosely related to the film. And the game DEFCON basically allows you to play thermonuclear war. There’s another weird spinoff/sequel thing called #Wargames that was by this guy Sam Barlow who did a couple of interesting narrative games I liked (Her Story and Telling Lies). It sounds like you get to choose how to see the narrative unfold, but the story itself is kind of on rails, but I never got around to playing/watching it.

  3. I remember also watching this one in the cinema. 1983 was peak nuclear war anxiety for me as a 10 year old – born and raised in Belgium, just a few km away from a NATO military base, i was convinced that the Russians would nuke us at some stage (it did not help that my mom was talking all the time about it)… it was around that time that we had movies like ‘The Day After’ (TV movie in the US, released in cinema in Europe) or that WW3 movie with David Soul fighting a Russians’ invasion in Alaska. Then there was also Threads on BBC.
    So… nuclear war was a scary thought for me as a kid. And therefore War Games was stressing! Re-watched it on BluRay not long ago and realized it was really not stressing. I blame my mom for all that stress!

  4. It’s interesting that WarGames has Matthew Broderick as David Lightman a cool nerd but then Eddie Deezen stumbles into the movie as the superstereotypical Eugene-Belvin-from-Happy Days (or y’know Eddie Deezen in Grease or just about anything) gawky geeky ginky ultra-annoying nurd nerd. Of course if this was remade today the lead wouldn’t in all likelihood be a Broderick-type but either a young Seth Rogan, Kevin Hart (being made to look like an idiot), or possibly a former boyband member with the acting ability of a bag o’ potato chips. In light of the present world perhaps a better ending for a remakequel would be David and Professor Fallen failing to convince WOPR. Although given the current state of cinema we’d probably get Dwayne “The Artist formally known as the Rock” Johnson punching WOPR into submission.
    John Lennon as “kind of a spiritual cousin to Stephen Hawking”? Bwa-ha-ha-ha! If you say so, Walter F.
    WarGames is still such a good movie, pure entertainment. It’s relaxing to watch a movie with real actors (okay, maybe not Eddie. Sorry, Eddie!) even in small roles. Broderick, Ally, Dabney, John Wood, guy from the West Wing, Barry “Northern Exposure” Corbin. And even the poster is pure nostalgia. There’s an art to that poster that we don’t tend to get today because the gonks are prized over and above anyone who might prefer imagination while technology rules the person rather than the other way around (Hello, A.I. Who’da thunk that’d be an extremely bad idea other than urr generations of science fiction writers and, later, moviegoers!). Pretty depressing. Ehh, WarGames…fine movie.

  5. I saw this for the first time just last year. It was at a mystery screening at a local art house cinema where the curator curated the films based in his birth year. This was a nice surprise, the other film Britney Spears’ Crossroads not so much. Anyway WarGames was a great film. I highly enjoyed it. As someone who is into retro computers and stuff the dated things didn’t bother me at all.

  6. Vern, you don’t remember 5 1/4″ floppy disks? Man, I must be older than you!

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this movie, but I DID have the ColecoVision game, which was WAY too hard for 8-year-old ejsteeler.

  8. Good review. I watched this a million times as a kid in the 80s but probably haven’t seen it now in 20 years. It kind of blows my mind that this came out only a week or so after Return of the Jedi—two 80s classics (IMO) right on top of each other.

  9. I’m not sure WARGAMES is that great of a movie but I have an enormous soft spot for it, nostalgia for a bygone age of both movies and tech–downsized adventures that kept moving, skirting the edge of darkness but pretty light and fun in the final analysis; the dial-up, the old monitors, the clacking keyboards, the big room-sized computers, the digitized “Shall we play a game?” voice…the dream of hacking into the school system and changing grades, getting away with it –wouldn’t that be the coolest? It’s one of those that’s so indelible I always remember it being a little better than it actually is.

    I was just mentioning this movie to a coworker a few weeks ago with all of the ChatGPT hubbub. With AI making its way into the mainstream (at least in some form) it’s interesting to consider how long it’s been a villain, at least as far back as Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” Humanity’s longstanding fear of our own creations taking over and deciding we’re redundant / obsolete / inferior / harmful and just sweeping us away has unavoidably popped up all over the pop cultural landscape, from stories to Star Trek episodes to multi-film franchises. But even though WARGAMES has an overall Afterschool Special-ish feel, it’s one of the most enduring touchpoints for it.

  10. I have always loved this movie. I feel like it has great pacing, characters and little touches that make it really memorable and does a great job of highlighting a sub-culture that was almost in its infancy.

    Almost unrelated, but there was a notoriously difficult 1990 NES game based on the 1988-1990 revival of Mission: Impossible and its entire climax was lifted almost verbatim from the end of WarGames, complete with supercomputer, world map and strobe effects, though they swap out Tic Tac Toe for a simple “blockade” style game they refer to as Madelinette. Here’s a link:

    Mission: Impossible (NES) Ending

    Theres a little bit more included than the ending in this video, to beat the game you have to play a game with the computer in order to avoid nuclear destruc...

  11. Fred – No, I had those, it was a big one. I guess it must’ve been 8 inches based on my research now. It seemed like the laser disc of floppy disks.

  12. The film which inspired so many, and so much! Including the now-obsolete “war dialers”…

    A not-so-often mentioned brother-film of “War Games” is “The Manhattan Project”, and, of course, “Sneakers” are the cousins of “War Games”.

  13. Wow, I forgot about those!

  14. One of the special features on the DVD of the 2008 movie Eagle Eye had the director of that movie, DJ Caruso, sitting down with Wargames director John Badham for a 1-on-1 conversation.

    This movie is a 10/10 for me. No notes.

  15. To this day, WARGAMES is possibly the most accurate portrayal of computer hacking on film. Hacking’s not fashionably-dressed, rollerblading hipsters on laptops in rotating phonebooths; it’s solitary nerds in their bedrooms occasionally trying to impress girls. I really don’t have too much to add about the movie. The late John Spencer plays the officer who’s unable to turn his key in the opening sequence. The White House allegedly screened the film for Ronald Reagan. After the screening, the President was so concerned about the possibilty of such a scenario occurring (an outsider gaining access to military computers) that he asked his advisers whether such a thing was possible. They didn’t know, so they looked into it. As it turns out, it was incredibly easy. For anybody interested, THE CUCKOO’S EGG by Clifford Stoll is his personal account of how he uncovered an East German spy ring hacking into military sites in 1986. The book was later turned into a Nova episode, “The KGB, The Computer, and Me.” You can find it on Youtube and Internet Archive.

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