A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie Project 259 – WarGames

WarGames – November 14th, 2010

Would you believe I had not seen this movie before today? Bizarre, right? How could I have missed this movie? It’s an 80s movie about hacking and global thermonuclear war, starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. Why the hell didn’t I see this as soon as I was old enough to pick out my own movies at the video store? I love Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club and pretty much ever hokey hacker-based movie ever made. I enjoy Hackers, okay? And what’s Hackers but a visually spiffed up 90s version of this with lower stakes? And yet. Tonight was my first full viewing of this movie.

Now, my first thought upon watching this was the one I expressed above regarding Hackers, but then I also thought this would be great paired with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, what with the threat of nuclear war and the 80s and all. I’m also amused to be watching this movie, so very obviously set in the early 1980s with no real attempt at action at all, after last night’s super slick sci-fi action bonanza. It’s a pretty stark difference to see the two back to back. And I can even draw parallels! Last night’s V.I.K.I. to tonight’s W.O.P.R. (the dangerous computers with too much power). Last night’s Farber to tonight’s Malvin (the pointless comic relief characters who add nothing to the plot – though I do maintain that Shia LaBeouf is infinitely preferable to Eddie Deezen).

To be honest, though, aside from the huge gaping plot hole that there’s no way it would be that simple to break into NORAD’s computers, the basic tech shown here doesn’t ping as hard on my bullshit meter as Hackers always did. Kind of funny. Maybe it’s that Broderick’s character seems a little more true to what I’ve always assumed early hackers did: Lots of paper and tedious trial and error work. He sets up an auto-dialer to try and find numbers he can dial into. When Sheedy’s character comes to find him after he’s been gone from school for days she finds him in his room surrounded by papers and numbers and research. There’s an action research montage, complete with a physical card catalog! This is what I want out of my hacking movies. Paperwork and action research.

Of course the plot itself is patently ridiculous and over the top, but that’s kind of the point. The folks at NORAD, finding that human beings are too reluctant to bomb the commies, have handed the missile firing decisions over to a supercomputer, designed by a scientist named Falken, to run war simulations all the time. So theoretically the computer will always be able to make the right decision. Except this stupid hacker kid, David, breaks in thinking it’s a computer game company he’s found. And he decides to play this awesome-sounding game: Global Thermonuclear War! Unfortunately he can’t just quit and the computer has no failsafe built in to divide simulations from the real thing and now David, his friend Jennifer and the military bigwigs at NORAD need to figure out how to stop the computer from nuking Russia.

Ridiculous, right? But it helps that it’s set in the 1980s, with people who are absolutely incredulous that computers can even do these things and really, should we be trusting decisions like this to machines that don’t understand the consequences of their actions? It also helps that a lot of the movie is about this kid poking around where he shouldn’t and using the newness of it all to cover what he’s up to. No one’s caught him yet because the possibilities just aren’t widely enough known. There’s a charm to that sort of global naivete. And Matthew Broderick plays a good mischief-maker you can’t help but like. I like Ally Sheedy as Jennifer, who goes along with it all but while she’s not the computer-savvy one, she’s fully on board with watching David poke around at it. That’s me right there. It’s a fun movie with fun characters and the big obvious plot holes are ones I can forgive. I really can’t believe it took me this long to watch this.


November 14, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment


November 14, 2010


I wish that we were reviewing this right after reviewing Hackers. It would be a more stark contrast. Hackers is a movie full of silly GUIs, impossible hacking and laughable technology. This movie is full of 1200 baud modems, 8 in. floppy disks (even bigger than the 5 1/4 inch disks I was used to on my Atari 800,) and all ascii displays. In short, although there is much that is implausible about the technology in this movie it feels a lot closer to my experience with computers of the day, which lends it an air of realism not often to be seen in movies. So it has some of the best and most realistic computer hacking in any Hollywood film. I see that Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, the screen writers, went on to write Sneakers – which is another wonderfully plausible movie about hacking. Good job, guys!

This movie is so much a product of its time that it’s almost painful. Not just because of the “state of the art” computer technology on display. This is a movie that leverages the immanent threat of nuclear destruction during the cold war for most of its tension. It features a prominent picture of Ronald Regan at one point, implying that the never-on-screen President that people are constantly talking to is him. There is mention of the Soviets mobilizing their troops in East Germany.

A very young Matthew Broderick plays David, a video-game obsessed kid with more cool computer tech in his room than you could believe. In an attempt to hack into a game company to learn more about their new line-up of computer games he inadvertently stumbles upon a government mainframe. It is WOPR – the computer that has been assigned by the government with the task of planning a nuclear attack strategy against the possibility of World War III. In an attempt to impress a pretty girl (Ally Sheedy as Jennifer,) and with the shrill and annoying help of Eddie Deezen, David attempts to find a user name that the computer will recognise. (There’s a very cool research montage where David reads articles and visits the library to learn everything he can about the man who programmed the computer.) Unfortunately for him when he finally gets in the simulation the computer begins to run turns out a little too real.

WOPR can’t distinguish between a simulated war and a real one, and wreaks all kind of havoc at NORAD command as it seems to indicate that the Russians have launched a nuclear first strike. This gets David arrested and brought in for questioning, at which point he discovers that the computer is still playing the “game” and intends to start World War III for real in about fifty hours. So he has to escape from government custody and, with Jennifer’s help, track down the programmer who created WOPR. It’s a boy-hacker-adventure story – perfectly suited for an eleven-year-old me, so naturally I have quite fond memories of it.

And just look at all these familiar faces! Not just Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (who I TOTALLY had a crush on from this movie, Breakfast Club and Short Circut) but also Dabney Coleman (from 9 to 5) Barry Corbin (from Twin Peaks) James Tolken (didn’t that guy ever have hair?) and Eddie Deezen (from 1941.) Maybe they’re not household names, but all of these great character actors in one place makes it feel like a whole bunch of familiar friends all together.

While we watched this Amanda asked me “Was this what you were like in the eighties?” to which I had to reply no. Then she asked “Was this what you WANTED to be like?” Well of course! What nerdish kid in the eighties didn’t want a room full of awesome computer tech, Ally Sheedy coming over to visit and an adventure into the heart of NORAD? Have I mentioned that I wrote “Global thermal nuclear war” in basic on my Atari? I just with it had had better graphics.

November 14, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment