WarGames

Wednesday Rewatch: WarGames still plays 35 years later

Contributed by
May 30, 2018

Welcome to Wednesday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate in a new context. This week we rewatch WarGames (1983).

WarGames turns 35 this year, and much of the technology at the heart of it likely looks just as alien to certain moviegoers seeing it for the first time today as it did to moviegoers in 1983. Home computing was still in relative infancy at the time, and the concept of hacking in any form likely seemed like pure science fiction to adults in the theater who grew up on typewriters and phone lines that were only used for speaking. Now, show a kid with an iPad and a smart watch the same film, and they might be just as mystified by the clunky monitors and massive floppy disks Matthew Broderick wields in his quest to play a game of Global Thermonuclear War.

As dated as its tech looks and feels, though, WarGames has stood the test of time, not just as an amusing Cold War artifact but as a solid, straightforward thriller that made two of the '80s biggest teen icons -- Broderick and Ally Sheedy -- into stars. WarGames was famously plausible and prescient enough that President Reagan himself began looking into cybersecurity policy after seeing it, and more than three decades later it's a film that still has a surprising impact in the age of North Korean nuclear fears.

FIRST WATCH

I first saw WarGames in, I'm guessing, about 1995, somewhere around the time my parents finally sprung for a satellite TV package that included all of those superstation staples which would air movies every weekend. When the satellite dish was still newly installed and the revelation of that many channels was still a novelty, my parents would often comb the TV listings in search of movies they loved from the '70s and early '80s (before they had kids). If the film was deemed tame enough when edited for television, I was often allowed to watch it. As a result, I have a great fondness for '80s comedies, particularly teen comedies, to this day, because I was fed a steady diet of The Breakfast ClubFerris Bueller's Day OffThe Money Pit, and yes, WarGames.

WarGames always felt a little like the odd film out among those Sunday afternoon movie experiences, though. Maybe I watched it too young. Maybe the reliance on old(ish) computers as a plot device was boring to me at the time. Maybe it just wasn't funny enough to hold my attention. Whatever the case, in those days WarGames was fine, but I much rather would have been watching Ferris Bueller's adventures.

THE OFFICIAL REWATCH

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that I didn't remember a lot of WarGames. I remembered David Lightman (Broderick) and Jennifer Mack (Sheedy) up in David's room, changing grades on their school's computer system and playing games they'd just found a back door to. I also remembered the film's famous ending, when David manages to trick the WOPR computer into avoiding nuclear war by playing repeated games of tic-tac-toe with itself. Very little else remained in my brain, and as I rewatched the film, I was particularly taken with just how dramatic this movie about a kid who just wanted to play some very basic computer games really is.

The film opens, as you may remember (I didn't) not with David and his computer adventures, but with two NORAD missile officers beginning their shift in a silo and navigating what turns out to be a very dramatic nuclear launch drill. Things get so heated that the younger officer (Michael Madsen in one of his first film roles) actually pulls a gun on the reluctant older officer (John Spencer) in an effort to force him to turn his launch key and initiate a counterattack against the Russian missiles heading their way. We don't even find out we've just watched a simulation until the next scene, when a group of NORAD scientists and soldiers are debating replacing the unreliable men in the silos with a computer that will automate the nuclear countermeasures. Rewatching all of that for the first time in years, I understood why my young brain likely tuned this part out. It's not very fun, at least not in the way the film is when David finally enters the picture. As an adult, though, I see the logic in it, and the carefully measured balance of drama and levity at work in WarGames. The fun adventure is there, and it will show up if you're patient, but this is a film that kicks off by reminding its 1983 audience of the very real threat of World War III. 

When David and Jennifer finally do enter the picture, the film lightens quite a bit, but there's another layer to WarGames that I'd forgotten, which begins to emerge very quickly. At first, David just comes across as a computer hobbyist who hacks his school's grading system to impress a girl, but this isn't just a movie about a kid who accidentally stumbles into control of America's nuclear arsenal. David certainly does accidentally stumble into the arsenal through his connection with WOPR, but something shifts in the film the moment he opens that computer game ad while sitting at his parents' dinner table. David's a hobbyist, yes, but he's also a detective, just as interested in the hunt for the games as he is in playing them. Though computer-driven films starring kids were rare at the time it was made, there's something more universal running through WarGames that you'll also find in films like The GooniesThe Monster Squad, and even E.T. For David, the computer is a treasure map laden with clues, and part of the game is finding where all the gold is buried, even if that gold is just a text-based simulation game that he managed to get for free. In his quest to find the games, he also finds the fascinating figure of Dr. Falken (John Wood), and what starts as curiosity becomes obsession, to the point that David even leaves school for days at a time to work at unraveling the mystery. Though the looming threat of accidental nuclear war is the centerpiece of WarGames, the film's second act is almost entirely consumed with a technological detective story, and if that somehow failed the climactic moments would not have worked half as well as they do.

Then there are the major themes at play in the film, which hold up just as well now as they did 35 years ago. Yes, we've come a long way from the days of floppies and a whopping 64KB of memory. Yes, the Cold War is ostensibly over. Yes, it would be much, much harder now for a kid to tap into the servers at NORAD, particularly when he's not even actively trying to do that. But it's not hard to see the bigger ideas at work here. WarGames begins with the fear that technology's ever-expanding influence on human life could one day doom us, and while this particular film is focused only on a supercomputer in a missile silo, that's one of the oldest and most treasured tropes in the history of science fiction. WarGames knows this and harnesses it to great effect, from the opening debate over the WOPR to David's realization that he can't stop WOPR, only trick it into learning how to stop itself.

Finally, of course, there's the film's famous resolution with a line that apparently made Cold War-fearing moviegoers burst into spontaneous applause back in '83: "The only winning move is not to play," a reference to the futility of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. Even now, more than three decades later, that threat still looms in the world. It comes from different places now, and different personalities and policies govern where we go from here, but it's hard to watch WarGames in 2018 and not superimpose its concerns and ideas onto the present issues we face in terms of nuclear arsenals. WarGames is a film that's very much of its time, but when the computer utters that key phrase, the film transcends its era and becomes universal. 

NOTABLE MENTIONS

Dr. Falken's Fatalism -- John Wood's Dr. Falken is a fascinating character, made all the more compelling because the film ends up using him so sparingly. David's research builds him up as a kind of legendary figure, but by the time he actually enters the story, he's less of a brilliant mentor and more of a prophet of doom, content to let the world obliterate itself while he hangs out on his island flying his remote-controlled pterodactyl. It adds another layer of darkness to the film that I'd completely forgotten about, and by the end, a layer of redemption as well.

Two directors --  It sometimes feels like reshoots and director replacements are things invented by the corporate-driven tentpole machine in Hollywood, but in reality they've always been there, and, in fact, WarGames is one such film that went through a major directorial shift early in its production. The original director was Martin Brest, who saw the film as a dark conspiracy thriller and whose footage disappointed the studio. Brest was fired after only about two weeks of shooting, and John Badham was brought in to finish the film. Much of the levity you now find in WarGames is thanks to him, and while certain footage Brest shot still wound up onscreen, it's largely Badham's work. So fear not, franchise fans. A film that changes hands mid-production can still turn out to be a classic.

The strangest way to butter corn -- With the possible exception of the classroom scene in which David humiliates his teacher during a discussion about asexual reproduction, much of the humor in WarGames comes incidentally. It's not a film full of set-'em-up, knock-'em-down gags, which means many of its more amusing moments come in the form of small details. The most famous and most bizarre of these arrives early in the film, when David's father applies butter to his corn by first liberally buttering a slice of bread, and then wrapping the bread around the cob. It's such a strange, specific little moment for a character who does almost nothing else in the entire movie, and it makes you think that perhaps David spends so much time on his computer because his parents are just complete weirdos.

Barry Corbin -- WarGames isn't really an action movie. Yes, the threat of war is looming constantly, and there are a couple of thrilling sequences (like the moment when David and Jennifer think they're being pursued by a helicopter), but we're largely watching a thriller built on words and keystrokes. That doesn't mean the movie can't have an awesome action movie general though, and Barry Corbin delivers in every single moment as General Beringer. The story of WarGames is often frighteningly plausible, and its characters are usually quite relatable, but it's nice to know that even such a serious premise can make room for a cigar-chomping, tremendously entertaining cartoon character made flesh. "I'd piss on a sparkplug if I thought it'd do any good" (a line Corbin apparently improvised) remains one of the great '80s movie lines of all time.

THE TAKEAWAY

WarGames still plays very well 35 years after its initial release. It's a modern classic in virtually every subgenre it might fit into, and it achieves that status through a very clear sense of sincerity that resonates through its story. It's a film about a very specific time and place in American history, and when it was released it was dealing in ideas that quite a few Americans hadn't even considered yet, with regards to personal computing and its implications for our future. In that way, it was a thought-provoking change of pace. 

WarGames isn't exactly a change of pace when you watch it with 2018 eyes, at a time when virtually every action movie involves someone hacking something and every blockbuster is about preventing some form of the end of the world. It holds up, though, because rather than making a very clear point about its extremely specific setting and technological era, it makes a larger point that applies to the world now just as much as it did then. If you made WarGames today, the technology at work and the number of logistical hoops the characters would have to jump through to make the plot click would be vastly different, but you could still arrive at the same message. That's why you can watch this movie now, look past the giant monitors and heavy keyboards, and still see the winning move.