Spoilers, Professor Falken.
I will make you a deal, I will start watching new movies when they start making them. Okey, that’s not completely fair. There are new movies nowadays that are actually trying to say something new and not trying to recapture the glory days (but you can’t deny most of mainstream cinema is on a nostalgia reboot train). Myself, I’ve been in a bit of a nostalgia bender lately. Thinking about movies that were products of their time and don’t work out of context, I decided to revisit one that might just be stuck in its time forever. One that would never work out of the 80’s but boy, did it work back then.
WarGames (1983) was directed by John Badham and written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. To say this movie worked in its time is underselling it. To say that you can watch it today is overselling it. It exists in that period of the cold war between the US and Russia where actual nuclear war was a possibility instilled into everyone’s minds. It was also a milestone from the computer room you need high clearance to enter to the personal computer in your room that everyone can use. The movie plays with the plausible scenario and the possibility of an apocalyptic outcome that only worked on the timeframe that it was released.
The movie stars a young Matthew Broderick in the role of teen hacker David Lightman, a name inspired by real-life hacker David Scott Lewis. The character of David is an anti-hero archetype: he’s a smartass, he gets into trouble but he’s good getting out of it. He’s basically a thief character class, the kind that can use a computer to hack into a military network and ends up firing up a war simulator capable of imagining end-of-the-world scenarios and play them for real. He’s not far from his role as the thief Mouse in Ladyhawke actually. He’s not brave, he often doubts himself and when cornered, he panics.
Actually, this is one of the reasons Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy) is here. She kinda grounds him when he’s about to have a breakdown. I wish I could say Jennifer has an agenda other than act as support or girlfriend for David, but no. At least she doesn’t just play the love interest, but I can’t deny that in the movie it’s just David’s story and she’s mostly along for the ride. She does get a few scenes here and there, but even when she’s the romantic interest she’s the one driving the interest.
The other character in the film whose presence drives the plot forward is the legend we’ve kept hearing tidbits from: Professor Stephen Falken (John Wood), the old wise man who taught Joshua aka the WOPR how to learn from making mistakes (he’s based on Stephen Hawking). I love the fact that to get Falken to start listening David must mention Joshua again. It’s like both the creator and his creation have the same password to bypass their defenses. Falken’s retirement from the world seems idyllic. He believes that humanity will unavoidably destroy itself and nature will start again with a different species. He finally comes around to helping the two teenagers (oh, and prevent the world from being destroyed too) but he sort of remains the sage, urging David to come up with the solution rather than take over himself.
The pacing goes from frenetic end-of-the-world in the first act to taking a ferry and going to an island to learn about dinosaurs with Professor Falken. We even get some romance blooming between David and Jennifer. Still, it’s no surprise that watching this movie decades later, I feel more empathy now with Professor Falken while when I was young I definitely identified more with David. I must also confessed that it was this movie and not Star Wars that definitely convinced me to seek a career in the computer field. Particularly convincing was NORAD’s command center, a one-million-dollar set which the director John Badham has revealed was a lot more elaborate than the real one.
Now it’s an understatement to say this but the movie has aged poorly. Yes, in its heyday it was considered well-researched but the truth is it does have some mistakes that are obvious now to a computer-savvy audience. A logon prompt requires a username first, not a password directly. David’s text-to-voice synthesizer is only on his computer at home, but after we hear Joshua/the WOPR speak for the first time, every time he gets to interact with it again we hear the synthesizer even on computers that don’t have it. I forgive this a 100% percent because it gives the computer personality whenever we see the words on screen.
Actually my favourite goof is when Joshua/the WOPR tries to break the code to launch the missiles. It’s an alphanumeric code of ten characters, only uppercase letters and no symbols. To add some movie magic, they added an oversimplification that would never exist on real life: Joshua can guess each character individually. Of course that’s not the way it works, we all know that but that way the stakes can be raised incrementally. Of course, that causes another incongruence: technically that is 26 letters + 10 numbers = 36 possibilities per character. If the WOPR can lock each one individually and it’s running all the 10 character guesses at the same time it literally should take no time at all. Yet we have to make it appear slow for dramatic effect. Inaccurate? Yes. Endearing in an anachronistic sort of way? 100%
Highly recommended if you’re willing to go in a trip down nostalgia lane, were an 80’s kid and/or are willing to envision the time period. Otherwise, you might get annoyed and bored. The movie also has some editing issues in which you can tell dialogue was added in post production in a different quality or doesn’t match the characters’ lips. They’re not super annoying, but they can be noticed fairly easily. The pacing has its issues, specially when we hit that lull right as the world is about to go into Global Thermonuclear War, then ramps it all the way up in the final act. I think it’s one of the movies that shines brighter only if you can situate yourself in the era in which it happens. If you can play along, it’s worth a watch. If you can’t then how about a nice game of chess?
That will do for now.