WarGames (1983)
April 15, 2018 12:48 PM - Subscribe

A young man finds a back door into a military central computer in which reality is confused with game-playing, possibly starting World War III.

NYTimes: ''WarGames" ... leaves one with the nagging suspicion that the possibility of thermonuclear war is worth more thought than has gone into this particular film. In its own jolly way, ''WarGames'' has made our fears as small and manageable as those concerning some loathesome waxy buildup on the kitchen floor.

Roger Ebert: "WarGames" was directed by John Badham, best known for "Saturday Night Fever" and the current "Blue Thunder," a thriller that I found considerably less convincing on the technical level. There's not a scene here where Badham doesn't seem to know what he's doing, weaving a complex web of computerese, personalities and puzzles; the movie absorbs us on emotional and intellectual levels at the same time. And the ending, a moment of blinding and yet utterly elementary insight, is wonderful.

Empire: Although personal computer technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since the clunky early ‘80s, making the crude machines on show here look the Spinning Jennys of the internet generation, this apocalyptic techno-thriller played out by teens still has a chilling grip. There is something frighteningly reminiscent of 2001’s HAL about the robotic voice of the talking super-computer that challenges Matthew Broderick’s David (the geek version of Ferris Bueller) to a game of Global Thermonuclear War – meaning the real thing. In a bleak gag, when David decides to nuke Las Vegas he ignites a countdown to oblivion. Quite a heavy thing for a kid to shoulder, but Broderick manages the terrible realisation with considerable restraint.

AV Club: Badham and company elide a lot of technical details of hacking, but the basics of the nascent computer culture still feel spot-on, right down to the body type and personalities of Eddie Deezen and Maury Chaykin, who play two of Broderick's techno-literate confederates (and work in Seattle, no less). More important is how WarGames plays up the contrast between teenagers—rebellious on the surface but conformist by nature—with a cynical adult world that has become convinced that nuclear annihilation might not be so bad. What endures about WarGames is the way Broderick keeps trying to talk sense to both the adults and the computers—the former when they blindly follow what enormous electronic screens tell them to do, and the latter when they innocently ask, "Shall we play a game?"

Trailer

Shall we play a game?

Streaming on Vimeo and HBO

Filming locations

WarGames: A Look Back at the Film That Turned Geeks and Phreaks Into Stars

The Cold War is over, but the terror WarGames tapped into remains

Shall we play a game? WarGames gets interactive reboot from Her Story dev

Ally Sheedy Talks WarGames and Seth Gordon's Remake at Tribeca Film Festival
posted by MoonOrb (16 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is legit one of my top five favorite movies.
posted by Chrysostom at 3:58 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


This is my favorite movie of all time. I want to add more, but I’m supposed to be doing homework right now.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 7:54 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


David Lightman sheds his toxic geekitude pretty early in (changing Jennifer’s grade against her wishes was presumptuous but perhaps not necessarily creepy). I wonder how and why the standard movie geek template from WarGames—a well-rounded geek who respected women and their limits—devolved into the standard toxic geeks from Real Genius, Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science so completely and thoroughly. Geeks didn’t get to be as realized and as respectful of others on celluloid again until Hackers, over a decade later.

WarGames also had their characters confront nuclear annihilation in a way that none of the other movies above approached (Real Genius was preoccupied with unconventional cold warfare). I wonder if works that ignore existential brinksmanship are more likely to perpetuate toxic masculinity, and if so, why.

Ally Sheedy’s character as I recall was pretty close to being an 80s manic pixie dream girl. Certainly she was underwritten. But Sheedy’s performance made Jennifer real, and Badham including her character moments and life separate from David in cutaways and essential parts of A-plot-forwarding scenes is a big part of why this movie is still a beloved classic and not a mere artifact.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:27 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


I think it's a little unfair to lump Real Genius in with Revenge of the Nerds (one of our heroes literally rapes a woman) and Weird Science (the entire plot is about creating a pliant sex object). It's certainly true that there are moments that are a bit cringeworthy in Real Genius, but overall, it's light years ahead - Jordan's character, of course.

One of the things I liked most about WarGames is that by and large, everyone feels like real people. David and Jennifer seem like actual high schoolers, McKittrick seems like an actual asshole we've worked with, etc.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:48 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


This may seem weird, but this movie was a window into American life (home, school, institutional) when I lived outside the country in a way that many contemporaries were not. There were some small moments that really seemed genuine (corn on the cob for one).
posted by bq at 9:55 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I watched this movie relatively recently and was surprised at how well it held up. I did think the gratuitous helicopter chase was kind of hilarious.
posted by jwgh at 4:11 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I really don't understand that NYT review. This movie goes almost as far as Dr. Strangelove in reminding us what an insane house of cards the MAD policy created. I mean, just the opening scene where the guy in the silo pulls a gun on his buddy. Jesus.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:40 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


I vividly remember watching this in the cinema as a teen. That climax, with Joshua's final simulations playing out, really feels like it was deliberately built to make for an overwhelming cinema experience: the bright flashes filling the entire auditorium with light, the long lights-out pause before "A STRANGE GAME".
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:14 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I remember finding the whole Prof. Falken-on-the-island interlude weirdly affecting. Now I know it's the "failed guru goes off to sulk" trope, but I think it may have been my first exposure.
posted by praemunire at 12:22 PM on April 16


I mean, just the opening scene where the guy in the silo pulls a gun on his buddy. Jesus.

That's Michael Madsen (from Reservoir Dogs) pulling a gun on John Spencer (from The West Wing)!
posted by Chrysostom at 12:47 PM on April 16 [6 favorites]


I wonder how and why the standard movie geek template from WarGames—a well-rounded geek who respected women and their limits—devolved into the standard toxic geeks from Real Genius, Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science so completely and thoroughly

Eddie Deezen was on the Gilbert Gottfried podcast recently, and he describes his lack of work in these movies after Grease in terms of producers wanting regular people who can be made to look like nerds. Like he was actually told that they didn't want real nerds (of which Eddie is definitely one).
posted by rhizome at 3:12 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen certainly remains one of the best onscreen representation of 1980s nerds I have ever seen.
posted by maxsparber at 7:45 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


Remember you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively? Remember that? You're doing it right now.
I think a lot of the staying power of this movie is because of how many great tiny/background moments it has. When Lightman is escaping the clinic room they've locked him in there's an airman assigned to guard him who is pestering a not-at-all-interested nurse. It's entirely uninteresting on the page but the performances are delightful and the nurse's delivery cracks me up every time.
posted by phearlez at 11:27 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of the staying power of this movie is because of how many great tiny/background moments it has. When Lightman is escaping the clinic room they've locked him in there's an airman assigned to guard him who is pestering a not-at-all-interested nurse. It's entirely uninteresting on the page but the performances are delightful and the nurse's delivery cracks me up every time.

One of my favorite background moments (though, I agree, that nurse was great) was the bit with the corn at dinner:
Dad: [lavishly butters his ear of corn, takes first bite, then sputters in horror/disgust] This corn is raw!
Mom: I know, can't you just taste the vitamins?
Dad: Well can't we just take pills, and cook the corn?

I mean, his delivery of that line just always made me giggle. And it's a throwaway thing, but, I think the scene manages to demonstrate the sort of benevolent obliviousness of the Lightman parents, who have no clue what David is up to. They're not maliciously neglectful, just kind of unknowingly ignorant. (Also, at some point after watching this movie, I tried some raw sweet corn out of curiosity, and I was onboard with team Mrs. Lightman -- nice crunchy taste, and no burning fingers/tongue.)

But, yes, this movie holds up much better than most other cyber/hacker movies, because the focus is on the drama, the characters & the nuclear threat. The tech serves the story rather than the other way around. Also, it's a really well-written script. I think I've said it before on mefi in another thread, but, this movie had a great dvd commentary track. They point out how they were amazed they got away with having a tour group in NORAD, they were sure that it would get mocked in reviews, but it was the only way they could think up to get David out of the compound, but nobody ever called them on it.

It reminded me of another commentary - for the movie Dead Again. I forget if it was the writer or the director, but they were agonizing over a scene where the characters are out in the rain, because there was a lantern on the table, but they couldn't figure out what to do about how the lantern would stay lit in the rain and wouldn't the audience notice. And whoever they were talking to about the problem (I think it was Sydney Pollack, who was one of the producers) said, your problem isn't the lantern, your problem is that the scene isn't working. And so they fixed whatever character problem had been derailing the scene, and nobody ever cared or mentioned that there was a lighted lantern and a boombox still running during the pouring rain, because the audience was onboard with the love story.

So, yeah, it is ludicrous that there's a tour group going through NORAD, even if they are supposed to be a group of diplomats or something. But they get away with it because by then you're onboard the fun train. It's just such a well-constructed script. They use every part of the cow, so to speak.
posted by oh yeah! at 5:16 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


The visitors are a group from Birmingham, Alabama.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:31 PM on April 18


So, yeah, it is ludicrous that there's a tour group going through NORAD, even if they are supposed to be a group of diplomats or something. But they get away with it because by then you're onboard the fun train. It's just such a well-constructed script.

Tours of Cheyenne Moutain were available all throughout the 80 and into the 90s.
Naturally, you didn't get to go in the super classified parts, but you got to look at the giant doors, go through a generic office building, learn about how much dynamite it took to blow a cave in the middle of the mountain.

In the 80s, oddly enough in the middle of the Cold War, you could go all kinds of places you wouldn't think.
Many military installations had a tour or a museum you could see just by asking at the gate. The Pentagon, White Sands. You could sail or canoe right up to boat barriers near Groton.

Naturally all the fun stopped after 9//11.
posted by madajb at 2:46 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]


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