Sunday 9 October 2016

Movie Review: WarGames (1983)

A technological teen comedy romance thriller, WarGames successfully mixes genres and takes an early look at the world of young geeks and computer hacking.

At the secret Colorado base for the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), systems engineer Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) believes that computers should replace stress-prone humans to fulfill missile launch orders. In Seattle, high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) has no interest in his classes but plenty of motivation to explore the burgeoning world of computer gaming and networks. As he starts a friendship with classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), David goes looking for the latest gaming code and accidentally hacks his way into the military WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) simulation supercomputer, part of the NORAD network.

David thinks he is playing as game called Global Thermonuclear War, but WOPR was not programmed to understand the difference between scenarios and actual war, causing panic in the war room as the line between reality and simulation is lost and the US military machine is mobilized to respond to a seemingly massive attack by the USSR. David and Jennifer have to track down WOPR's reclusive creator Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood) to try and stop the chaos.

Directed by John Badham, WarGames defies easy categorization. It's a a high school comedy, a techno-thriller, a young romance and a fulmination against military incompetence, complete with the most impressive war room set since Dr. Strangelove. It is not unexpected that some parts of the film creakily rub against each other, but overall Badham and his team of screenwriters make it work, and it has withstood the test of time remarkably well. A crackling current of irreverent, sly humour permeates the movie, Badham playing up some stereotypes with sharp wit and a quick wink.

The film is in many ways groundbreaking. David as a teenager with no interest in school but a bedroom full of computer equipment and an intrinsic ability to understand technology and circumvent security is a pioneer hacker, a milestone to a future generational shift. The portrayal of the military as an organization both harnessing the awesome power of computer technology and simultaneously wrestling with its implications and vulnerabilities remains remarkably applicable decades later. WOPR as a self-learning computer points the way to the future world of artificial intelligence. The set design is also astonishingly inventive, the NORAD headquarters a dazzling example of imagination matching future realities.

WarGames has a few chase scenes and moments of staged thrills, but primarily works its way towards more cerebral aspirations. The tragicomic character of Dr. Falken becomes a central figure, a man disenchanted with life having dedicated his career to understanding war at a deeper level than humanly possible only to suffer a devastating personal tragedy. No longer interested in winners and losers and only waiting for the one outcome, Falken slips into a father figure role for David, and doesn't so much solve the crisis as point the way. And credit goes to Badham for having the courage to allow the hot war threat to be resolved prior to revealing the film's real heart, as WOPR finally grasps the meaning of learning when it comes to war.

Matthew Broderick is perfect in the role of David Lightman, his screen persona of the lighthearted street smart misfit suitably deployed both on the domestic front and in the war room. Ally Sheedy creates the perfect girlfriend-to-be, and with help from the mischievous script she quickly turns Jennifer into a real person: fun-loving, sweaty, roguish, initially dubious of David's surreptitious computer wizardry but ultimately a helpful resource.

WarGames is both cheeky and perceptive, a clever film with a deft touch and timeless message.

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