(originally published during “Retro Scifi”-week on Talkbacker on August 20, 2014)
At the time it came out, in the summer of 1983, “WarGames” surely was considered to be science fiction. With it’s outlandish War Rooms and supercomputers and whatnot. Technology has certainly taken giant leaps in the decades after that, and what was once sci-fi, has become pretty low-tech. But a charming piece of low-tech. Make no mistake – as dated as the hacking methods and technology of “WarGames” is nowadays, it has a certain charm and even naivete, that definitely makes it a worthy title to check out.
David Lightman: Joshua called me.
McKittrick: [incredulous] David, computers don’t call people!
David Lightman: [shrugs] Yours did.
The backstory of “WarGames” began in 1979, when writers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker developed an idea for a script called The Genius, about “a dying scientist and the only person in the world who understands him – a rebellious kid who’s too smart for his own good.” Among the inspirations on the scientist, Professor Falken, was Stephen Hawking, who was actually considered to play the character, but because of his already-then ailing health, the idea was scrapped. Later the professor was envisioned more like John Lennon, who the writers actually toyed about casting in the role. The young man was turned into a hacker after some hacking incidents became very hot topics in the media. Notably, the “Captain Crunch” telephone hackings, where John “Captain Cruch” Draper used a toy whistle given away in the cereal to activate a telephone trunk line, enabling him to make unlimited free calls. Lasker and Parkes met with several people in the hacking community, befriending many of them, including David Scott Lewis, who became the main inspiration on the film’s main character, David Lightman.
As the story began to develop into the “WarGames” we all now know, Parkes and Lasker came up with several different military-themed plotlines prior to the final story. One version of the script had an early version of WOPR named “Uncle Ollie”, or OLI (Omnipresent Laser Interceptor), a space-based defensive laser run by an intelligent program, but this idea was discarded because it was too speculative. Finally, the concept of WOPR, a United States military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war, was coined as the “big bad” of the story. The WOPR computer as seen in the film was a prop designed by production designer (credited as visual consultant) Geoffrey Kirkland based on some pictures he had of early tabulating machines, and metal furniture, consoles, and cabinets used particularly in the U.S. military in the 1940s and 50s. They were adapted in drawings and concepts by art director Angelo Graham. The final WOPR is a sleek, properly ominous-looking thing that brings into mind some of the sleek, futuristic designs of Syd Mead.
General Beringer: Gentlemen, I wouldn’t trust this overgrown pile of microchips any further than I can throw it.
The original choice as the director was Martin Brest, later the director of films like “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Midnight Run”. The main protagonists, David Lightman and his (girl)friend Jennifer are played by Matthew Broderick (in his first big role) and Ally Sheedy (second role after the Sean Penn-starring “Bad Boys” and a few years before the Brat Pack-fame). British thespian John Wood was cast as the eccentric Professor Falken. The other lead roles, Dr. McKittrick and General Beringer, the main persons responsible for handling WOPR, were played by Dabney Coleman and Barry Corbin. After 12 days of shooting, Brest was relieved of his duties as the director after “creative differences” and was replaced by John Badham, director of “Saturday Night Fever”, “Dracula (1979)” and “Blue Thunder”. Apparently Brest’s original tone for the film was too dark and serious, and Badham was brought in to make the picture more light and fun. Several of the scenes shot by Brest remain in the final film, but good luck in trying to spot them out, I most certainly can’t…
The film begins in a nuclear missile silo, where a routine watch is interrupted by an emergency drill, testing if the operators (John Spencer and Michael Madsen, very early in their careers) actually would be willing and capable of following their orders and actually perform a launch of a nuclear missile. Of course the drill fails, and this triggers Mckittrick and other systems engineers at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) into the idea that command of missile silos must be maintained through automation, without human intervention (this always seems like such a good idea, doesn’t it?). So, WOPR is hooked into the entire Defence Network.
McKittrick: Excuse me, sir. We can’t send these men back to the President of the United States with a lot of head-shrinker horseshit!
Meanwhile, we meet David Lightman, a high scool student. Brilliant, but completely unmotivated at school. He is also a hacker. After receiving a failed grade, David invites Jennifer to his home and shows her how he can easily hack into the schools system and change the grade. To impress Jennifer, he gives her a higher grade, too. I guess to some people, the REAL scifi-moment is, why one would invite a young Ally Sheedy to your room and impress her with hacking – but that’s part of the naive innocence of the picture, I guess…. David is also on the lookout for upcoming computer games, and has a program running, calling every number in Sunnyvale, California (part of the Silicon Valley computer industry megaplex), trying to access computer game companies, so David can get an early peek at the future releases. During this, David runs into a a computer that does not identify itself. On it, there is a list of games, starting with general strategy games like chess, checkers, backgammon, and poker and then progressing to titles like “Theaterwide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare” and “Global Thermonuclear War”, but a password request makes it impossible for him to proceed further. One of the games on the list is called “Falken’s Maze” and this clues David on the hunt for the password. David does extensive library background research on Falken (in a sequence that concultant Lewis calls “extremely accurate”) and finally keys in on the name of Falken’s deceased son: “JOSHUA”.
Of course, “JOSHUA” is in fact WOPR, which David logs in on. He starts a game of Global Thermonuclear War, playing as the Soviet Union. The computer starts a simulation, and all hell breaks loose at NORAD as the military personnel are convinced that actual Soviet nuclear missiles are inbound. While they defuse the situation, Joshua nonetheless continues the simulation to trigger the scenario and win the game. It continuously feeds false data such as Soviet bomber incursions and submarine deployments to the humans at NORAD, pushing them into lowering the DEFCON level and toward a retaliation that will start World War III. David learns the aftermath of his actions from a news broadcast, and soon afterwards, the FBI arrests him and takes him to NORAD. He realizes that Joshua is behind the NORAD alerts but fails to convince McKittrick and the General, who just basically want to lock him up and throw away the key. David escapes NORAD cleverly by joining a tourist group – although would there REALLY be tourist groups let into NORAD, I’m not so sure – and, with Jennifer’s help, travels to Oregon, where the widowed Falken now lives as a hermit. David and Jennifer find that Falken has become despondent and believes that nuclear war is inevitable. The teenagers convince Falken that he should return to NORAD to stop his creation from ending the world as we know it.
McKittrick: See that sign up here – up here. “Defcon.” That indicates our current defense condition. It should read “Defcon 5,” which means peace. It’s still on 4 because of that little stunt you pulled. Actually, if we hadn’t caught it in time, it might have gone to Defcon 1. You know what that means, David?
David Lightman: No. What does that mean?
McKittrick: World War Three.
The computer stages a massive Soviet first strike with hundreds of missiles, submarines, and bombers. Believing the attack to be genuine, NORAD prepares to retaliate. Falken, David, and Jennifer convince military officials to cancel the second strike and ride out the non-existent attack. Joshua tries to launch the missiles itself, however, using a brute force attack to obtain the launch code. Without humans in the silos as a safeguard, the computer will trigger a mass launch. All attempts to log in and order Joshua to cancel the countdown fail, and all weapons will launch if the computer is disabled.Instead, Falken and David direct the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself. When both players play flawlessly, tic-tac-toe games always end in a draw. This results in a long string of ties, forcing the computer to learn the concept of an unwinnable game. It’s a really cleverly directed sequence, and proves that watching tic-tac-toe on screen CAN actually be unnerving as hell and raise the viewer’s pulse waaaay up.
Stephen Falken: What you see on these screens up here is a fantasy; a computer enhanced hallucination!
Joshua obtains the missile code but before launching, it cycles through all the nuclear war scenarios it has devised, exactly in the manner as it’s tic-tac-toe games. Finding they too all result in stalemates, the computer concludes that nuclear warfare is “a strange game” in which “the only winning move is not to play.” Joshua then offers to play “a nice game of chess” instead, and relinquishes control of NORAD and the missiles.
“Wargames” has a lot going for it. The script is well-structured and as science-fictiony (for it’s time) as it may be, there is a real plausibility to all events that occur on-screen. The juxtaposition of the highly futuristic, clearly “Dr.Strangelove”-inspired NORAD set (described by Badham as “NORAD’s wet dream of what NORAD would look like”) against Lightmans bedroom set with it’s DIY-hardware and classic IMSAI 8080-computer, acoustic coupling-modems, tumbler phones, 5¼-inch Floppies and all other carefully researched things works incredibly well as a kind of good vs. evil-division. The scenes in the bedroom, with the two kids are played with the naivete and innocence as I mentioned earlier, and as the story gets more darker and the innocence gets lost, we end up in the cold, steely, mechanical world of NORAD.
Acting is good across the board. This film was only the second one for BOTH Broderick and Sheedy, but they have great chemistry, with SOME little underlying tones of “friends that might become more than that”. As Badham stepped in, things were apparently not so, as “Broderick and Sheedy were ‘stiff as boards’ when they came onto the sound stage, having both Brest’s dark vision and the idea that they would soon be fired in their heads.” Badham did 12–14 takes of the first shot to loosen the actors up. At one point, Badham decided to have a race with the two actors around the sound stage with the one who came last having to sing a song to the crew. Badham lost and sang “The Happy Wanderer”, the silliest song he could think of. All of this off-screen shenanigans certainly helped, and made the film work because of it. John Wood is also great as the bewildered and eccentric Falken, who is forced back into the world to repair what he’s done. Wood was mostly a theater actor, and this background certainly helps as Falken is forced to the center of the stage in the nail-biting finale. Barry Corbin brings a lot of gravitas to his role as General Beringer (a role modeled after a real commander at NORAD, who the filmmakers met during pre-production).
A great little combo of teen movie/science fiction/cold war thriller, “WarGames” has withstood the test of time. It’s a genuine little gem of the 80’s. It still gives an excited vibe to just go and HACK something. Although best not to act on those impulses, even if you’d have skill for that sorta thing. Not in the NSA-monitored world we now live in…
So – how about that nice game of chess?