The 80s is a decade packed with kid and teen friendly sci-fi and fantasy movies, hence the incredible surge of nostalgia that’s felt for that period in today’s popular culture. It was a time when kids made friends with aliens, went into space, went back and forward in time, and just generally went on awesome adventures in movie after movie. Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is the ultimate love letter to everything that was great about 80s pop culture, a love letter perfectly calibrated for massive commercial appeal.
Now that the Spielberg directed big-screen version of Ready Player One is on the verge of wide release, there simply couldn’t be a better time to revisit one of the 80s movies most prominently featured in Cline’s nerd-tastic bestseller.
Released in 1983, WarGames was directed by John Badham, who made a number of other 80s favourites including Short Circuit and Stake Out. The film stars Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a disinterested student, who’s more likely to bite back at his bullying teacher than he is to do any actual classwork. Not that he needs to put in much effort, as he’s a computer genius and knows how to hack into the school’s electronic system and change his grades from Fs to whatever the F he pleases. Fellow student Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), who finds out about this after giving him a lift home, at first disapproves, then decides it all seems like good fun. Things take a potentially world-ending turn for the worst when David accidentally hacks into a computer that controls the US military’s nuclear missiles and engages it in a game of thermonuclear war. But is it real, or just a simulation?
WarGames was the movie that made Matthew Broderick a star. It was only his second film role, and led two years later to the truly iconic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Looking at both movies it’s easy to see how he could have so quickly become a box-office draw, and why his appeal as a leading man would so quickly wane. There’s something about his big, brown, liquid eyes that’s strangely blank. With his fresh skin, tousled looking mop of hair and skinny body, he looks totally innocent but in a way that suggests, not goodness, but a lack of moral awareness. He looks like someone who could do anything and get away with it. Which is exactly what he did in his two most fondly remembered movies. But it’s a shtick that has an inbuilt expiration date.
The pleasure here is in watching him cause all kinds of headaches for the stuffy military types who have tried to remove human decision making from the act of mass killing. We then get to see him waltz (well sprint desperately) into the military war-bunker and quickly establish himself as the smartest smartass in the room, as he saves the day at the end of the movie. It’s the stuff of pure fantasy fulfilment.
Broderick’s young, rebellious presence isn’t the only aspect of this movie that places it squarely in the 80s. The technology is charmingly old-school, with blank computer screens that suddenly crawl with green lettering. The A.I. that David mistakenly turns into a doomsday device even has a cute, bordering on sinister, electronic voice.
Frankly, the premise is fairly ridiculous. Yes, it’s worryingly plausible that a youngster could hack into a powerful nuclear defence system, and set it off. But it’s hard to accept the idea that the computer that’s given a large degree of autonomy over the nuclear missiles is independent enough to engage in spontaneous conversations with David. The computer known both as WOPR (pronounced Whopper… one wonders whether they were aiming for a Burger King tie-in) and Joshua is like a retro version of Hal from Kubrick’s 2001, only with way more blinky lights, and even a panel that looks like a face.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have an intelligent message. By the end, as all out nuclear Armageddon approaches, the creator of Joshua implores a member of the military top-brass to behave like a human being, not a machine. At times WarGames feels like a teen version of another Kubrick masterpiece, Dr Strangelove, and even more closely Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, released the same year, 1964 (which led to a lawsuit). In particular, a scene in which General Beringer (Barry Corbin) stays on the phone with US soldiers in the target areas to find out whether they’re destroyed by Russian missiles, or not.
In fact, the climax to the movie ratchets the tension to a surprising degree. In the war-bunker Def Con 4 swiftly becomes Def Con 1, as an announcer calmly counts down the arrival of the Russian missiles and men sweat over consuls, watching lines criss-cross giant screens, as the world is apparently destroyed.
Putting aside Broderick and his eyes, Ally Sheedy acquits herself well in a limited girlfriend role. She has a youthful effervescence which makes her one of the more memorable 80s stars. (Check her out in Short Circuit and The Breakfast Club). While, Dabney Coleman, who brings his naturally warm screen presence, also impresses as the misguided Dr McKittrick, who suggested giving WOPR autonomous power in the first place.
WarGames is an enjoyable piece of 80s hokum, with a great star performance, surprising tension, and a valuable anti-war message. If you’ve read or watched (or both) Ready Player One and feel like you need to get your 80s freak on, then this is a pretty great place to start!