WarGames is arguably the most influential computer movie of the 1980s. That’s quite a statement to justify, so let me try. This film inspired a whole generation of hackers and crackers, added now standard terminology to the IT lexicon and caused the then President Ronald Regan who after viewing the film, to call a meeting of his senior advisors who had to assure him that it was not possible for a hacker to initiate the launch of nuclear weapons as shown in the film. I doubt there are many other movies out there with these claims to fame.
I still remember my Dad getting our first home computer. It necessitated a trip down to London and cost well over a month’s salary for him to become the proud owner of a Commodore Pet, a model 4032 as I remember. It was not long after we went to see Wargames and I think this further whet his appetite to explore the capabilities of computer science further. Over the next few months, more peripherals arrived, including a disc drive, printer, speaker system and eventually a modem, allowing him to connect to his company’s mainframe computer in the ‘States. A number of his customers even visited our home to witness the amazing technology that allowed Dad to see the stock levels in the warehouse and order parts without speaking to another human! All pretty amazing stuff in the early 80s.
The film itself was a long time in the planning and both the original screenplay writers and director Martin Brest were fired with just a few days of filming in the can. By all accounts the movie would have been much darker under Brest while the producers wanted a more family friendly movie. John Badham brought a much lighter tone, injected some much needed humour, reinstated the screenwriting team of Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker and set the movie on the right track.
Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, an underachieving high school student with an interest in computers. His friend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) shares his low achievement in class and quite obviously flirts with David, but he is too wrapped up in silicon chips to notice. When he is not hacking into his school’s computer to change their respective poor grades, he is searching for a way into a computer games company’s system so that he can play their latest products months before release. While he fails in this quest, he does manage to connect to NORAD and initiates a war games simulation program. Scared by what he has done, he tries to disconnect from the system, but the brilliantly named “WOPR” (War Operation Plan Response) – the artificial intelligence system he has been playing does not give up so easily and calls him back.
The hardware that David uses to hack the system would have been almost obsolete by the time the film was set. The IMSAI 8080 was an early commercial and serious hobbyist computer from the late 70s, so it is entirely plausible that it would have filtered down to home use by the early 80s and the slightly beat up nature of his rig, with the cover missing and hand written labels on the front helps to reinforce this perception. Of course the WOPR is pure fantasy, with the military’s simulation systems being somewhat more numeric in operation at this time. The “Blue Boxing” or “Phone Phreaking” was however entirely factual. Although not possible in quite the same way in the UK, it became a major pass time in the US, with crackers making free long distance calls, even internationally. War dialling also became extremely popular after the film, with a number of programs written and distributed for the purpose. The voice synthesiser that is used to reproduce the words coming back from WOPR would have been far beyond the capabilities of the hardware shown, as the computer would not have had enough memory to store the complex waveforms needed to create the sounds, let alone decode the written text correctly. However, the filmmakers were concerned that much of the audience would struggle to read the words from the screen quickly enough and so it became a prop of necessity to keep the plot rolling along.
The relationship between Jennifer and David is partly what makes the film. They effortlessly carry off the friendship between them in a natural way, almost as if they had grown up in the same town and known each other for years. The military men led by General Beringer (Barry Corbin) sit in their war room – a huge practical set and significantly larger than the real thing. The technology to make the huge video screens bright enough to work for filming simply did not exist, so synchronised projectors – nine of them were used, all running in perfect time with the main cameras to eliminate flicker. This same system was actually used on a much smaller scale for the TV series of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy where the “Guide” was created in much the same way. Corbin also gets many of the comedy lines, much of which he ad-libbed himself. He may be 20 points shy on the IQ and 20 pounds too heavy to be a General, but who can resist a medal ribbon be-decked, cigar smoking gun toting cowboy, swaggering around SAC like he owns the place? The internal struggles between the top brass who want to keep humans in the loop and the computer guys who want to eliminate the men in the missile silos and cede the launching of the missiles to their automatic systems, is a central element of the plot and in the midst of the cold war, added an extra dimension to the movie. It was this aspect that set the minds of the real power brokers thinking about computer security, given that the ARPANET network that linked up the US’s defence computers also connected to many universities and government systems via public phone lines. Once the seeds of doubt had been planted, there were quite real concerns that incursions into the network would become more common and pose a threat to national security. The “Firewall” terminology within the film passed into common computer parlance as the name for the systems and software design to prevent unauthorised connections.
Unknown to the NORAD staff, WOPR is still playing the simulation it started with David and they see an increasing number of phantom attacks from the Ruskies appearing on their screens. They respond to the supposed threats that they see on their screens by increasing the “DEFCON” level to one – the highest level. Fortunately, David, now accompanied by the original designer of the system – Stephen Falken (John Wood) convinces the military that it is just a game and prevents Strategic Air Command from launching a counter strike. The bad news is that WOPR or Joshua as Falken originally named the system is still playing and starts working out the launch codes so that it can launch the missiles itself. Can the combined brains of David, Falken and the US military save the day and convince Joshua not to fire? Will David and Jennifer express their love for one another and will he remember to put the lid on the dustbins properly next time? Probably the only unconvincing moments of this film are the various crescendos as the humans appear to be gaining the upper hand over the computers. Where one might expect either a calm celebration from the serious military types, we get a sort of half hearted, slightly embarrassed whooping and hollering, as if the actors were not quite sure how they react if they had just saved the world again. The sort of men that hold positions at NORAD and in SAC tend to be sober individuals, not given to displays of emotion. You kind of need that level of calmness when you hold the keys to enough nukes to lay waste to half the globe.
This aside, the film contains an excellent blend of technical geekiness, humour, teenage first love and of course the on-going peril of imminent thermonuclear war. Ally Sheedy does the flirty teen very well and it was this movie that helped to launch her into her Hollywood career. Matthew Broderick also does well, his nerdiness quite well suppressed, with him coming across more as just a bit socially awkward and computer obsessed and with somewhat dysfunctional parents. The story retains one’s interest throughout, with a simple to follow plot that is hardly taxing, but avoids getting boring. Once we get over the absurdity of both WOPR and fact that a teenage boy could penetrate far enough into the defence system to initiate an attack, the rest of the story hangs together very well. Unlike many films of the era, the score retains mainly classical overtones, with staunch military music during the scenes inside NORAD, while the teenage story is accompanied by pop music and a more contemporary score. The temptation to make this a synthesiser led computerised music fest like Tron must have been huge, but the decision not to was a wise one and has helped the film from aging too badly.
Critically acclaimed and a commercial success at the time, the film has dated to a certain extent, but remains very watchable, if only to astound one’s young offspring when they gaze in incredulity at the steam driven hardware and wonder how the world functioned before smart phones and the internet!
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