“We’re targeting today’s savvy media consumer who demands quality video entertainment regardless of where that entertainment experience takes place. By leveraging film and television franchises, which have already proven to be popular with specific targeted demographic groups, we’re able to both continually replenish our library while also maximizing revenues from our existing film and television programming!” —Jason Weiss, Vice President of MGM DTV division, 2007
Do you remember this – that they made a 25-years-later DTV sequel to WARGAMES? Please join me in wishing it the happiest of 15th anniversaries. As one of today’s savvy media consumers who demand quality video entertainment regardless of where that entertainment takes place (a.k.a. an aficionado of the DTV-sequel-nobody-asked-for format), I was always curious about it, but never bothered to find out what the deal was until now. It’s called WARGAMES: THE DEAD CODE, and it seems at first like it’s following the WILD THINGS model of DTV sequel: just do kind of a loose ripoff/update of the original plot with different characters. Will Farmer (Matt Lanter, the voice of Anakin Skywalker on Star Wars: The Clone Wars!) is a young computer genius who does some computing/hacking that brings him to the attention of an A.I. called R.I.P.L.E.Y. (voice of Claudia Black, PITCH BLACK), a project of the Department of Homeland Security or somebody.
Later it turns out to be kind of using the THE HIDDEN II method: bring in a character from the first one, recast. Part 1’s eccentric inventor Dr. Stephen Falken shows up to help (introducing himself as “a gentleman who almost started World War III”), but now he’s played by Gary Reineke (RITUALS, IRON EAGLE II) and no longer has an accent. Oh, his computer WOPR is also back. Still uses the same password, too.
There was also a minute or two there where I really believed it was swerving into the ROAD HOUSE 2: LAST CALL type approach of saying the new main guy is the son of the original main guy. Will starts talking about his dad being a computer programmer who died when he was 7, and Dr. Falken reveals that he knew Will’s father, and in fact knows things Will doesn’t about his dad secretly doing heroic counterterrorist work for the government. But he says he knew him first as a student at MIT, which rules out that he’s talking about Matthew Broderick’s character David Lightman. So Will is not David Lightman’s son, but I strongly suspect they had it written that way and then chickened out. Maybe they had to keep the character alive in case Matthew Broderick would come back for part 3 like Wesley Snipes did in the ART OF WAR series.
One surprising thing I learned from my research is that 2008 was kind of a long time ago. It was the year of THE DARK KNIGHT, SPEED RACER, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, CHOCOLATE, and RED CLIFF. They were on the first TWILIGHT, the first IRON MAN, the first IP MAN, the first TAKEN, the first KUNG FU PANDA, the first DEATH RACE, the first NEVER BACK DOWN, and the only JUMPER (starring a different Anakin). Other DTV sequels that year included STARSHIP TROOPERS 3: MARAUDER, LOST BOYS: THE TRIBE, THE SCORPION KING 2: RISE OF A WARRIOR, THE ART OF WAR II: BETRAYAL, NO MAN’S LAND: THE RISE OF REEKER, JOY RIDE 2: DEAD AHEAD, REST STOP: DON’T LOOK BACK, VACANCY 2: THE FIRST CUT, REVENGE OF THE NERDS: NERDS ONLINE, BACHELOR PARTY 2: THE LAST TEMPTATION, and GET SMART’S BRUCE AND LLOYD OUT OF CONTROL. (I only made up one of those titles.)
2008 was also a year when this movie could open with a group of alleged terrorists in Afghanistan getting blown up, but they’re in the middle of some kind of rave? These guys in camo drive up in a bunch of Jeeps, catching air off the dirt piles, then unload weapons and women in fur coats, dance to electronic music and fire guns in the air. There’s a funny CGI shot following a bullet straight up into the sky until it loses momentum and drops back down. Just above it there’s a drone dropping a bomb on them.
RIPLEY singled them out because one of them did well in an online game where you bet actual money and then simulate different types of terrorist attacks. If somebody does well at it and has money they must be a terrorist, so the computer locates and bombs them. Man, in the ‘80s if you were good enough at a game you got recruited to fight an intergalactic war, now you just get assassinated.
Unlike WOPR, which was created by a nice guy and got out of control, RIPLEY is created by a guy who acts like he knows he’s the bad guy. T. Kenneth Hassert (Colm Feore, FACE/OFF, WIDOWS , HIGHWAYMEN) wears all black with a fedora and says things like “that’s my girl” while watching videos of RIPLEY killing people. He strollls into headquarters berating and talking down to everyone. It seems like every single other person has a real bad feeling about this program, but can’t stop him, he can just do whatever he wants. I’m not sure why.
By the way, he also has one of those Bluetooth phones in his ear that in those days was the ultimate sign of an unrepentant douchebag.
Will has a bedroom computer setup as deluxe as David’s in part I, but of course that was more common 25 years after the first movie. Unlike David, Will does have a friend, an obnoxious dude who comes over to eat Pringles and loudly play Stargate Worlds and World of Warcraft while Will solders a new phone hacking invention. The friend’s name is Dennis (Nicolas Wright, BANSHEE, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE) but I call him Stiles, because he plays a similar always-trying-very-hard-to-be-funny/bad-influence to the guy from TEEN WOLF. Unlike the original Stiles he gets unjustly arrested as a tactic to pressure Will, and then disappears for most of the movie. I don’t agree with it ethically, but I do artistically.
Although Will knows how to break into computer systems or whatever, he’s also such a boy scout that he gives his neighbor Mr. Massude (Alberto Delburgo) free tech support and even picks up his prescriptions for him. More incredibly, he gives his overworked mother (Susan Glover, THE PEACEMAKER) foot massages. What a good kid! Not a nerd, though. He wears a hoodie under a red-brown leather jacket. That signifies that he’s pretty cool.
Stiles is the one who gets him into trouble by telling him about “this new gaming site, it’s called RIPLEY, you know, like that Matt Damon movie.”
It’s more of an online casino than a game. Will helped Mr. Massude set up his bank account, and has the password for it. Mr. Massude has a brother back home in Syria doing shady stuff transferring large amounts of money into the account for short periods of time, and Stiles convinces Will to gamble with it real quick and then put it back.
There’s an option to play Global Thermonuclear War (reference), but Will chooses to play “THE DEAD CODE,” which simulates a chemical weapons attack on a city. He plays it well enough to get on RIPLEY’s watch list, plus his mom formulates cleaning products for a living and is a weirdo who brings home chemicals from work, so there’s some suspicious stuff in the house.
The authorities shut down Mr. Massude’s account and arrest him, but Will doesn’t say anything. He just leaves the country. See, he’s been flirting with this hot girl from school, Annie (Amanda Walsh, DISTURBIA). I feel funny saying “girl” because she looks around 30 – she could easily be cast as a teacher – but that’s what she’s supposed to be. A weird thing happens where he’s checking her out on Facebook (her favorite movies are listed as “Fahrenheit 9/11, Super-Size Me, Enron [Smartest Guys in the Room]…. You can see where I’m going with this”) to try to figure out what password she’d use for her account on the school’s website. When he gets in it plays a video that says “DIE HACKER SCUM!” and threatens to “burn” whoever is trying to break into her account “unless you happen to be Mr. Will Farmer,” and then she invites him to her chess tournament in Montreal.
There’s alot of stuff like that in this movie, where they do things that are clearly supposed to be cool as fuck but I don’t totally follow what they’re doing or why. What is this account? Why is our hero trying to break into it? How does she know he’s doing it, and why does she think that’s cute?
So he’s in Montreal when the authorities come after him thinking he’s a terrorist. I think the idea is that RIPLEY can’t do drone attacks within the United States, but can do them in Canada! Will and Annie run around doing tricky stuff like she pretends to be dumb and fake flirts with a guy in a cafe while Will steals his fingerprint to break into his laptop, there’s a chase in a subway tunnel that looks like the one in BLADE, meanwhile we get the generic electro beats and rockin guitars you expect in a movie like this, courtesy of composer John Van Tongeren (The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, Poltergeist: The Legacy).
A weird old man in a bucket hat is following them, turns out to be Dr. Falken, who they have heard “went crazy” and committed suicide in protest when RIPLEY replaced WOPR. So he has faked his death at least twice now. He drives them through snowy roads to a power plant that now houses WOPR. I like that the computer gets a cool zoom-in like Matthew Broderick or Ally Sheedy would’ve if they had come back for a surprise cameo.
There are of course constant cuts to black and white security camera footage, or satellites in space, or lights flashing as the doodads inside Ripley’s translucent body get worked up doing all the intense computery shit. RIPLEY controls traffic lights to get specific people run over. There are dramatic lines like “I hear what you’re saying, Bill. But you don’t mess with RIPLEY. She messes with you,“ and “Ripley will be so far up this guy’s butt he won’t know whether to scratch his watch or wind his ass.” (?)
WOPR tries to attack RIPLEY in cyberspace or whatever, so RIPLEY sends a drone to blow up the power plant! R.I.P. to Dr. Stephen Falken for the third time. Will gets all his online gamer friends to do a DDS attack on RIPLEY, so RIPLEY attempts suicide by nuclear bomb. Bill Carter (Chuck Shamata, DEATH WISH 5: THE FACE OF DEATH), a federal agent who knows Will is innocent, brings Will and Annie into the (much smaller than in the original) war room to do more computery stuff to save the world or whatever. And WOPR stages an intervention by getting RIPLEY to play the Global Thermonuclear War game and learn the concept of futility. That’s kind of a nice idea, that WOPR learned a lesson in the first movie and teaches it to another computer in this one. Maybe there’s hope.
Director Stuart Gillard is a Canadian actor (F.I.S.T.) and TV director (Avonlea, Charmed [both versions], One Tree Hill), but his previous feature films as a director include TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III and ROCKETMAN (not the Elton John biopic, but the farting astronaut movie starring Harland Williams). His previous sequels include the TV movies TWITCHES TOO (he also did the first one) and THE CUTTING EDGE 3: CHASING THE DREAM, and he later did LOST BOYS: THE THIRST. The screenplay for THE DEAD CODE is credited to Randall M. Badat (SURF II, HEAR NO EVIL, BORN TO RUN) and Rob Kerchner (BLOODFIST IV-VII, CAGED HEAT II, CARNOSAUR 3, CASPER: A SPIRITED BEGINNING, TURBULENCE 2: FEAR OF FLYING).
Of course the computer stuff in THE DEAD CODE is both far-fetched and dated – lots of animation and sound on these screens that’s crude now but too advanced for then – which is kind of the fun of it. The leads are decent (in a WB/CW soap opera way, not the natural way of the original) and you can see why Lanter was cast in Clone Wars around this same time – he does remind me of Hayden Christensen, in a good way. It’s a silly and cliched thriller, and certainly not a sequel that adds anything worthwhile to the first one, but there’s effort put into it on a technical level. It seems like a real movie, pretty much. That’s not always the case with these.