DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: WAR GAMES

Saturday 19 July 2008


War Games (1983) dir. John Badham
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Alley Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin


“War Games” that underappreciated techno-classic has all the hallmarks of early 80’s cinema: fears of computer and artificial intelligence, late cold war paranoia, and of course kids vs. adults. “War Games” stands out of the pack, because it never caters to be simply entertainment, its message is a powerful reminder of the dangers of the technology we create and the speed with which we create them. It's also great entertainment.

“War Games” opens with a lengthy but important sequence. We watch the mind-numbing procedure of a pair of military operatives as they go about their daily routine at a NORAD missile launching station. It must be a painfully boring job, forced to go through the same procedure day after day, in case they are asked to actually throw the switch for real. Well, on this day the unthinkable happens. They receive authenticated orders to launch their missiles. But after all the training and rehearsing the human factor fails them and one of the men (the late John Mahoney) refuses to launch the missiles.

And so is established the moral conundrum of the film and of the nuclear age. Should the fate of the world rest with the decision-making of one man? Should a military decision like a launching of nuclear warheads be executed by a computer? This is what advisor John McKittrick (the great 80’s character actor Dabney Coleman) proposes and implements. A Hal-like computer called WOPR replaces the execution procedure we saw in the opening scene. It’s an impressive piece of machinery but not everyone is convinced the computer is right for the job.

Enter high school wiz-kid David Lightman – a Bill Gates like Seattle teen who skips school and changes his grades with his elaborate home computer system. One day, while trying to hack into a software company to play games he accidentally hacks into the WOPR computer and thus the NORAD defensive grid. He starts a game of Biothermal Nuclear War, which Lightman thinks is only a game, but in reality turns into a world-threatening nuclear simulation. Lightman is in big shit and is taken into custody. The only person who can exonerate them is the reclusive designer of the WOPR computer.

From a screenwriting perspective Lawrence Lasher and Walter F. Parkes have crafted the perfect techno-thriller script – big ideas are told through great characters and accessible point of view storytelling. The pacing and dialogue are sharp, with just enough humour and romance dabbled in lighten the seriousness of the subject matter. They even have the ticking clock, the classic screenwriting device to remind the audience of the stakes. Usually this device is masked as a metaphor but the writers are confident enough to use a literal countdown display on the WOPR computer which they cut to from time to time.

Lightman’s computer set up is a great piece of production design. Designer Angelo Graham constructs a reality-based bedroom set-up of machinery, printers, speakers, monitors, which is certainly antiquated, but something which a clever teenager could have at the time. Lightman’s research and hackings are shown to us in procedural detail like the opening of the film. OK, so it’s impossible to actually type in a colloquial phrase and have it recognized as an command, but Matthew Broderick’s handsome yet geeky innocence sells all the mumbo jumbo to the audience with ease. Graham also creates an enormous NORAD set rivaling Ken Adam’s Dr. Strangelove set. Graham fills the huge space with authentic-looking giant computer screens, global maps, and hundreds of fancy computer and flashing lights. Within the space, John Badham expertly crafts his utterly suspenseful climatic battle with the computer.

Director John Badham, a relative unknown in today’s cinema circles, is one of the great mainstream directors of the 80’s. He even directed “Saturday Night Fever”. Other hit films of his include, “Blue Thunder”, “Short Circuit”, “The Hard Way” and “Nick of Time”. Arguably “War Games” is Badham’s crowning achievement, which stands out over all other Reagan-era Cold War films and can proudly be compared favourably to many of the great 60’s films: “Fail Safe”, “The Manchurian Candidate” and dare I say, “Dr. Strangelove”. Enjoy.

“War Games: 25th Anniversary” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

1 comment :

Dead Pan said...

Along with the DVD rerelease of the film, they are actually giving the film a one day play in theatres. I am not sure of exact dates, but I thought it was interesting. =)