This video essay is part of the “Cruel Summer” series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), and ROCKY III (1982).
The fantastic opening sequence of WarGames uses one of the most basic constructs of video games: just when you think you’ve figured out a level, it turns out to be part of a bigger scenario. We first see an approaching car in the middle of a nasty storm. Two men (played by the late John Spencer and Michael Madsen, both looking very young) approach a house and enter its welcoming living room. After they walk up to a mirror, we learn they’re at a military outpost. Soon they are in an elevator that immediately descends into the Earth. When they reach their destination, we realize they’re in a fortified room in a nuclear missile silo, from which they’re in charge of launching a retaliatory strike if the U.S. is ever attacked. After an alarm goes off, an emergency message is received: an order to launch the first of ten nuclear missiles. As they insert their launch keys and go through the required checklist, the one who’s a veteran (Spencer) starts to have second thoughts about turning the key. The scene climaxes with the Madsen character pointing a gun at his commanding officer and ordering him to “turn your key, sir!” The sequence ends with what is known in the gaming world as a cut scene, an abrupt transition to daylight.
WarGames is the best video game movie ever made, precisely because it isn’t explicitly based on a video game. Hollywood has had mostly disastrous results when they’ve tried to tap into the video game market. Beginning with the Tie fighter sequence from Star Wars, video game graphics and situations have been clumsily incorporated into movies like, say, 1979’s Moonraker, a classic example of Hollywood attempting to retool an established property (in this case James Bond) to take advantage of a current craze. Arcade games like Pac-Man, Defender, and Galaga became part of the youthful movie-going experience. The line from Pong to Star Wars to Pac-Man to Atari to Hollywood seems fairly obvious. Hollywood’s first official video game movie was the summer ’82 release TRON, a spectacular sight and sound show that flopped but that Roger Ebert correctly described as “. . . breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities.”
WarGames is one of those movies. It works because the story is the main focus, not the technology. (That’s why a movie like the summer ’84 release Cloak & Dagger can retain a retro freshness while TRON: Legacy plays like a rerun.) Director John Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes knew that the sight of a home computer system was exotic enough that they didn’t need to linger on it in order to keep the audience’s attention. That’s what separated WarGames from the glut of other summer ’83 releases that had some kind of video game and/or computer plot point. There was the speeder chase in Return of the JEDI that played like a take-off on Defender, while in Superman III,Richard Pryor played a computer programmer coerced by Baddie Robert Vaughn into working for him. (The climax of the movie had Vaughn firing missiles at Supes while seated at the controls of the world’s biggest game console.) Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie played like a cross between a Tex Avery cartoon and a video game. Even The Man with Two Brains had a throwaway gag of Dr. Necissiter’s (David Warner) brain transfer machine needing quarters in order for it to work. But WarGames felt organic (even if its story was a high concept mix of Steven Spielberg suburbia and Cold War fear). WarGames has a primal pop immediacy that uses the Reagan-era fear of a Russian invasion as a way to tap into the then percolating fear of modern technology.
After that intense Fail-Safe opening, the action switches to Colorado, specifically the NORAD command center where U.S. defense strategies are enabled in the event of an enemy attack. (In reality NORAD only handles detection, not actual military defense strategies.) At the time of the movie’s production, the NORAD set was the most expensive in history ($1 million) and it remains one of the most famous, ranking with the War Room from Dr. Strangelove. The shot where we first see the set is a beaut as a single analyst walks into a rather nondescript room, then, in an unbroken shot, the camera follows him as he walks up some stairs and a panning shot allows us to take in the massive computer screens that make up the front of the NORAD complex.
It turns out that the emergency launch was a test to see if the men in the missile silos are willing to turn the key. Twenty-two per cent of the men failed the test, which is viewed as a major problem by Washington. Some of the President’s men have arrived at NORAD to discuss ways to address this problem. Gen. Beringer (Barry Corbin) is a veteran of war who acknowledges the need for technology but feels safer knowing that men are in the silos. McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) is a civilian analyst who wants to replace the men with computers in order to guarantee the President’s orders are carried out. The film allows us to see validity in both sides.
We then meet David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a bright kid who lives to play computer games. When we first see him he’s at an arcade playing Galaga. (There’s a brief fun shot of all the games as we try to spot our personal favorite. The detail of David playing Galaga and not, say, Pac-Man is just right. Pac-Man is a game of timing where Galaga requires real skill.) At school, David likes to stay under the radar. He invites Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy, to come over to his house where he uses his personal computer to dial into the school’s computer and changes a recent scoence test grade from an “F” to a “C.” He does the same for her, because she also did poorly. When she orders him to change the grade back, he does, only to change it to an “A” after she leaves. David and Jennifer are cut from the same cloth as the kids in a Spielberg movie; you can almost imagine a cinematic suburb where the split-level houses from E.T., Sixteen Candles, Risky Business, and, yes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are all lined up. The byplay between Broderick and Sheedy is charming and blessedly lacking in teen sexual anxiety. David may be the movie’s first computer hacker, but he’s devoid of paranoia or arrogance. He’s like Mark Zuckerberg’s well-adjusted older brother.
What connects David to the men in the missile silos is his desire to play with the ultimate computer system. When he hacks into a computer game company he inadvertently finds himself playing a game with the W.O.P.R. (War Operation Plan Response), the U.S. Defense computer that comes up with every possible scenario in the event of World War III. Naturally, David wants to play a game of “Global Thermonuclear War,” representing the Russians himself. The sequence where David and Jennifer play on his computer and the people at NORAD scramble to come up with a proper response is close to slapstick. (The cross-cutting by Tom Rolf sustains tension impeccably.) The moment David ends the game is chilling, equating sudden termination of game play with possible nuclear annihilation.
Finally David realizes he almost caused nuclear war, but the W.O.P.R. insists on finishing the game. The idea of computers becoming aware and taking over the world is not new. (Think of 2001, when the HAL 9000 suggested to Dave Bowman that he take a pill and reconsider what he was doing.) The W.O.P.R.’s indifference is just the natural extension of the military creed about turning men into killing machines. Why bother with the men when the machines can simply follow their programming? In its own way WarGames foretold the day when our dependency on computer technology would be at the heart of all our fears.
Of course, Badham and his collaborators don’t bludgeon you with this message in this big-studio summer movie. Badham is known as a journeyman director, something quite rare in today’s Hollywood; he’s able to adapt to whatever environment a story is set in, giving the movie a sense of pacing and character—as in the classic Saturday Night Fever. His other worthy credits include the unjustly forgotten Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Short Circuit, Stakeout, and the underrated real-time thriller Nick of Time. Released a couple of weeks before WarGames, Badham’s Blue Thunder showed a noir-ish techno style that was like an adult video game. For WarGames he was aided immensely by the cinematography of William A. Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby, 1941), whose clean, bright lighting was indicative of early ‘80s movies. (Shooting several computer screens, Fraker does a really lovely job with reflections.) The score by Arthur B. Rubinstein is a mix of militaristic bombast and early sketches of electronica. My favorite musical cue is when David has his first “conversation” with his computer and asks, “What is the primary goal?” Both the answer and accompanying music never fail to create a genuine moment of dread.
The one thing that has made WarGames hold up to countless repeated viewings long after its then novel computer terminology has become dated is the depth of its supporting characters. Today, gadgetry and armory have placed ahead of character, but WarGames is a reminder of when Hollywood seemed to have things in somewhat proper proportions. Coleman allows McKittrick’s weakness for logic to keep him from being an unfeeling martinet, while Corbin is absolutely winning as a career military man only too aware of the situation’s severity. Corbin’s delivery of the classic line, “Goddamnit, I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it’d do any good,” is typical of his good ol’ boy charm. Maury Chaykin and the incomparable Eddie Deezen play a couple of computer geniuses with a mix of jocular aggression and know-it-all superiority. (“Mr. Potato Head! Back doors are not secrets!”) The one misstep in the movie is the conception of the character of Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood), a computer programmer who disappeared after personal tragedy and the realization that his work was going to be used for all the wrong reasons. A cross between Stephen Hawking and Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Falken’s pessimism about humanity and belief in futility is the only place where the movie is explicit about its no-nukes message. Wood eventually wins viewers over, especially when he tells Gen. Beringer, “What you see on these screens up here is a fantasy; a computer-enhanced hallucination. Those blips are not real missiles. They’re phantoms.” That’s just the set-up for the movie’s climax, a spectacular sight and sound show that suggests that the futility of war might be beside the point. It suggests that all of life’s lessons will be learned online.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.