Movie Review: WarGames

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A teen computer whiz hacks into the computer that controls the launch of nuclear bombs and, thinking it’s a game, accidentally starts the countdown to World War 3.

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John Badham, 1983

The film opens with a test of military procedures in firing nuclear weapons; the men who work in one of the silos (played by Michael Madsen and West Wing’s John Spencer) arrive at work only to get the message that they need to launch the missiles, and Spencer’s character hesitates, wanting to speak to someone on the phone before carrying out an electronically delivered message. This leads the military to decide the whole system should be computerised, handing over that job to a computer called Joshua, the brainchild of inventor Dr. Falken (John Wood). AI Joshua plays games including war simulations all day in order to learn how best to win a war. Young hacker Ferris David (Matthew Broderick), who mostly uses his l33t computer skills to change his grades and those of his pretty classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), is searching for new games to play when he accidentally hacks NORAD instead. He plays “Global Thermonuclear War” as the Soviet Union, not knowing he’s actually started the countdown to launch nuclear weapons and start World War 3. He and Jennifer go on a quest to save the world, recruiting the despondent Falken to help them.

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This is one of those great high-concept 80s teen action movies that I somehow never got around to seeing before now. Starring fresh-faced young starlets Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick (seriously, he looks like he’s about 14 even though they were both 21 at the time), the movie is a fun speculative fiction, one of those what-if military adventures. The movie is socially conservative (David’s mother works and it turns him into a delinquent and threatens his father’s health! Computers can’t be trusted!), but it’s politically progressive, with a lot of underhanded digs at the military. It has a terrific soundtrack, too, using country & western and military themes and undercutting them playfully. There are some pretty shots and great locations, particularly the movie’s “war room”. The movie’s pacing sags in the middle, with David’s extended chase sequence and a lot of standing around and talking from the military higher-ups and scientists, but it picks up again for a clever climax.

The stars are great. Ally Sheedy’s Jennifer is like a girl version of Josh Brolin in The Goonies, constantly exercising (in leg warmers and leggings and hair that bounces whenever she moves). Broderick’s David is a naughty hero, like Ferris Bueller would be a few years later – both use Broderick’s natural youthful charm to make otherwise unpleasant teenage boys likeable. At the start of the film, David seems genuinely shocked that Jennifer might have moral objections to him hacking into the school computer to change her grade from an F to a C. John Wood’s Falken is a lot of fun as well – when we first meet him he’s flying a remote-controlled pteradactyl (must-have toy of 1983!), exemplifying the extinction of the dinosaurs as the natural course of events and stating that the human race is doomed (but at least he’ll die quickly). The teens have to work to change his mind, but after the loss of his son and his work being used for war, Falken has understandably given up on humanity. There are some nice, insightful lines alongside some cheesy ones. Overall this is a fun 80s adventure worth going on, a concept film that’s been referenced many times since.

WarGames on IMDb

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