30 years ago today, on June 3, 1983, WarGames launched into theatres. The story of high-schooler computer genius David Lightman infiltrating the NORAD war planning WOPR computer and inadvertently setting things on the track towards WWIII was timely in 1983, while the cold war between the U.S. and communist Russia still raged, and computer modems were just starting to come into vogue. The amazing thing is that today, 30 years on, all you have to do is update the hardware a smidge, change the bad guys to communist China, and the themes of WarGames remain just as relevant. On its anniversary, lets run the movie’s numbers through the Tenpoint mainframe and see what the tape punch spits out.
For Story, WarGames gets a 2 (+2). It’s a fun, rollicking ride, but strains credulity as to how far things eventually go. Director John Badham does a good job with his set-ups and lighting effects, so a (+2) for Look. Overall Casting gets maxxed out for two points (+2), since all the characters are spot-on perfect and help ease us through some of the more iffy scenarios. I can’t really give everyone their due here in the interest of brevity, but the insanely young-looking Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy give pitch-perfect perfomances as high-schoolers caught in the bind of possible global annihilation, along with Barry Corbin of Northern Exposure fame as cigar-chomping Gen. Beringer, Dabney Coleman in full jerk mode as Mr. McKittrick, and John Wood in a fantastic turn as the enigmatic Prof. Falken. Commitment to Genre takes another full two points (+2), as the film starts with a suspenseful sequence and keeps the stakes high for the duration.
Sub-total: 8 points.
One point (+1) is given for the NORAD war-room set, which at the time was the single most expensive movie set ever created. As described by director Badham, it was “NORAD’s wet-dream of itself”.
Another point added (+1) for the realistic portrayal of hacking in the movie. So many times since have we the audience been subjected to ridiculously convoluted, over-the-top graphics of hackers at computer terminals roaming virtual hallways cracking electronic safes. Lightman uses real hacker techniques like brute-force phone dialing and social engineering for his computer break-ins.
Speaking of this, I will also deduct one point (-1) for the obsolete IMSAI computer that Lightman uses at home. Even by 1983 standards, this box was ancient.
I have to give two points (+2) for the two nerds Lightman consults, played by Canadian actor Maury Chaykin, as well as perennial geek Eddie Deezen as his side-kick. They’re only in one scene, but they are hilarious.
Minus a point (-1) for the idea that there’d be media reports of Lightman’s initial break-in of NORAD so soon after it happens, or that it would even get out.
One point (-1) gets escorted out of the premises for tourists roaming around NORAD HQ, especially during times of crisis where the DEFCON rating is affected.
Another point retracted (-1) for Joshua’s voice-synthesis travelling to wherever Lightman uses a computer terminal.
A point added (+1) for Lightman’s clever escape from the infirmary.
(+1) for Lightman’s hack of the public pay phone.
One point (-1) flys away with the Pan Am reservations for Paris. They were made in Jennifer’s name, so the authorities should have immediately suspected her as an accomplice.
A point taken (-1) for the over-dramatic helicopter chase on the island.
And (+1) for the great advice from the crowd on playing Tic-Tac-Toe, “Put X in the center square!”.
So our results are +9 for WarGames. On the surface it seems to work as a simple thriller, all the while subverting the idea of nuclear war into simple gamesmanship. Kubrick’s dark classic Dr. Strangelove broke it down into a joke. WarGames reduces the feigned complexity down to a game of X’s and O’s, where the only winning move is not to play.
If you’ll indulge me, you can read more about the making of WarGames, as well as other movies steeped in the video game culture of the era, at my website The Dot Eaters: Video Game History 101.
Be sure to check out theDotEaters.com for more war game history 101!