It’s pretty odd when a film that not that long ago felt extremely dated (though still thoroughly enjoyable) suddenly becomes relevant again.
Such is the case with WarGames, a film that was firmly entrenched in the Cold War genre of apocalyptic films. Even odder, I’m writing this post on the day of scientist Stephen Hawking’s funeral, who was the initial inspiration for the film.
WarGames has one of the best, most intense opening scenes of any film I’ve ever seen. Two soldiers who man a nuclear missile silo suddenly get the order to launch. One refuses. The other, who can’t launch by himself, threatens the other with a gun.
(By the way, the actors in this scene are the then virtually unknown Michael Madsen and John Spencer of The West Wing fame.)
It turns out it was only a test to see how the soldiers would comply with a launch command. Because of a high rate of failure, the decision is made to take the launching of missiles out of human hands and install the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a supercomputer programmed to retaliate once the other side launches an attack.
Teen David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is an intelligent but underachieving student who is obsessed with computers. A self-trained hacker, he uses his skills to impress his friend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) by tapping into the school computer to improve their grades. He finds out a game company has some new games coming out. Determined to hack into their system to play the games before they come out, he accidentally—and totally unwittingly—taps into WOPR.
While he and Jennifer “play” thermonuclear war, the program they are using, “Joshua,” sets off a simulation at NORAD, making it seem as though the Soviets are launching an attack. Once the origin of the simulation is detected, David is arrested and brought to NORAD. While there, he again manages to sign into “Joshua,” and finds out the game is still running—until one side or the other wins.
He manages to escape and calls Jennifer for help. Together, they seek out the inventor of the program, Stephen Falken (John Wood), who was presumed dead but is actually living incognito. Still mourning the death of his son Joshua, he is persuaded to return with them to NORAD so they can stop the program from launching World War III.
In this era of hacktivists, Russian bots, and renewed anxiety over a possible nuclear war, the film is as germane today as it was during the Cold War era. While the equipment David uses seems adorably retro, we use, without thinking, streamlined and upgraded versions of it now. (This was pre-internet and many of the things he could do seemed sci-fi at the time the movie came out.)
David and Jennifer are appealing protagonists, who truly think they are only playing a game. Originally, the film was darker and the kids were not so innocent. The studio changed the director from Martin Brest to John Badham, who concentrated on lightening up the two main characters and making them more likable.
In fact, the film is rather remarkable in that there are no real villains, other than the system that allows for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. While systems engineer John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and General Berringer (Barry Corbin) are the antagonists for the first two thirds of the film, the truth is no one wants to blow up in a nuclear war. All the characters, even the suicidal Falken (the Hawking-inspired character), work together to stop what seems like the inevitable end of the world.
Along with its impressive opening sequence, the closing one is just as spectacular.
I would rather WarGames go back to being a quaint relic of a bygone era. Even so, it never stopped being an engrossing and highly entertaining thriller, with a message that won’t ever go out of style.