1983 MGM/UA (IMDB entry)
Reviewed by Nathan Strum
David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is a computer whiz-kid who loves video games. So much so, that he tries to use his computer to break into a video game company's computer system so he can get a sneak-peak at their newest games. But what he and his friend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) don't realize - is that they've actually broken into NORAD's computer system which controls the United States' arsenal of nuclear missiles. When David starts playing a game called "Global Thermonuclear War", the heads of NORAD - John McKitrick (Dabney Coleman) and General Beringer (Barry Corbin) - don't know the computer is only playing a game with them, and they're ready to go to war with Russia for real!
When he discovers what he's done, David tries to stop the game, only to find out that the computer, named Joshua, won't stop playing - until it wins.
In order to prevent a global catastrophe, David must find the reclusive genius, Stephen Falken (John Wood), who created Joshua, and help him find a way to stop his own creation - a computer that was designed to learn, and is getting smarter every second. Can they figure out a way to outsmart Joshua before it starts World War III?
I really liked WarGames when it came out in 1983. Back in the early 80's, I spent many hours over at my friend Martin's house, where we'd camp out in front of his TRS-80, dialing up to Bulletin Boards, or the University of Washington's VAX, where we'd play Zork well into the night. If anything, I like WarGames now even more, because I appreciate it on more levels than I did then.
If this film had to fit in any one genre, it would be a cold-war drama. That's at the crux of the plotline, although what made WarGames so popular was that it successfully crossed several genres and appealed to a wider audience. Beyond the cold-war tale, are a teen-age misadventure story, a little bit of romance, some good-natured humor, and a whole lot of technological thriller.
When this movie was made, few people used personal computers, much less knew anything about connecting to other computers via modems. Yet, this is a key element to the story. All of the technology is presented in such a clear and accessible way, that people were just able to believe it, even if they didn't really understand it. Perhaps equally important, is that the movie was extensively researched for as much accuracy as possible, so it wouldn't put-off the very people who would potentially have had the most interest in the film - computer geeks. (I use that term affectionately since I've long considered myself to be one.)
The fact that WarGames got all of the details right, just made it that much more enjoyable for those of us who were familiar with David Lightman's world of computers and video games - right down to the old payphone trick. Of course, the fact that it took place in Seattle didn't hurt - since that's where I grew up and lived at the time.
As a teen-age misadventure, it works very well. It's a fun adventure, first and foremost, but there's enough danger so that there's an ever-present sense of urgency that builds throughout the film. The lead characters are well written and well played by Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, and with the exception of one scene, the dialog feels completely natural and genuine. The relationship that grows between them seems honest and there's a real chemistry there. They're also very believable - David isn't a super-suave, chiseled-featured ladies' man. He's average-looking, a bit awkward, more comfortable around computers than people, and he uses his knowledge of computers to try and impress Jennifer, instead of some hackneyed pick-up lines. Jennifer isn't a drop-dead gorgeous babe on the cheerleading squad. She's an attractive but typical high-school student, more interested in flirting than getting good grades in biology class.
The writing in the film is superb. There's enough humor in the film to break the tension at key moments, and just enough quirks to the characters to make them seem real, instead of flat and one-dimensional. There really isn't a weak performance in the film. Everyone seems to hit just the right note with their characters, and the relationships between them never seem forced or artificial.
As a cold-war drama, the film is one of the best of its kind. It serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear one-upmanship, but even more as a warning against the dehumanization that occurs as computers are brought in to replace people. Should we be trusting our very survival to a machine? There is considerable tension in the movie as the military begins to respond to a threat that it only thinks is there, because the computer says it is. The actors and director do an excellent job of suspending disbelief in a key sequence where everyone is watching to see whether or not a nuclear attack is actually happening. We know it's not happening, and even some of the characters know it, but it's so well handled that the tension and subsequent relief is palpable nonetheless. Each character has a reaction that fits in uniquely with their own personalities, and with what their stakes in the story are.
When that crisis ends, the film appears to be over. But the filmmakers brilliantly spring the real ending on us. The story isn't over yet, and in fact - the real danger is now at hand. The humans are no longer in control of their own destiny, and the film reaches an incredible visual and audio crescendo of sight and sound, as the Earth is destroyed countless times while nuclear war is played out as a game over and over again by the computer - as we can only sit and watch helplessly.
The film is exceptionally crafted. Besides the writing and acting being top-notch, a lot of credit must go to director John Badham. He manages to pull all of these diverse elements together into a cohesive film that never lags or threatens to lose its audience.
The set design is of particular note, too. The NORAD facility set is nothing short of amazing (although it turned out to actually be far better than the real thing), and required an incredible number of rear-screen film projectors and video systems to run in perfect sync for even the simplest shots. Even David Lightman's room is well done. He's a teen-ager, and his room is a complete mess. Not just random clutter, but an organized pile that any packrat would instantly recognize. His computer was even carefully selected as one that was already obsolete at the time, so it would be believable that a high-school kid would be able to afford one.
The soundtrack (by Arthur Rubinstein) is excellent. The closing theme is haunting and melancholy. Instead of hitting us with a typical celebratory fanfare, we're left to reflect on the movie, and consider the message of the film, realizing that we are by no means safe from the threat of a nuclear war. The music during the film's climax is also exceptional, and serves to reinforce the intensity of the scene. It's a shame the soundtrack isn't available on CD.
From a video game standpoint, they're at the very core of the story, yet they aren't merely thrown into the movie at every turn to cash in on the potential tie-ins. There was a promotional tie-in with Midway, since Galaga is featured in a couple of scenes, but mercifully there was never a video game version of Global Thermonuclear War. I suppose if the movie were made today, no game company would think twice about putting out such a game.
The DVD is well done, but not as spectacular as it could be. It's not an anamorphic transfer, but it is letterboxed so at least the widescreen aspect ratio is preserved. There are periodic blue flashes on the screen, which made me wonder if there were problems during the film transfer. However, the picture is still crystal clear and looks great, and the sound is excellent. There's an outstanding audio commentary by director John Badham, and writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes that offers a wealth of information about the movie. Also not to be overlooked are the liner notes on the insert. There's a considerable back-story behind the making of WarGames - only hinted at in the commentary - which the liner notes expand upon. Finally, there's the almost obligatory theatrical trailer, but no additional "lost" or "behind the scenes" footage. Since this was a pretty early release as far as DVDs go (1998) perhaps MGM will consider re-releasing it for the film's 20th anniversary in 2003 as a collector's edition. Even if they don't, it's well worth having as-is.
WarGames is a terrific movie. It combines the best elements of a technological-thriller with those of a classic cold-war drama. It manages to remain true to its serious themes, yet it always manages to keep enough of a sense of humor and fun about itself so that it never wears out its welcome.
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