“Shall we play a game?”
With the advent of computing systems like Apple and Commodore, home computers became a major fad in the early 1980s and shortly began popping up as a plot device in films like For Your Eyes Only and Superman III.
However, the film that best captured the cinematic possibilities of a story about computers was (and still is) WarGames – a timely, on-target black comedy about David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) – a high school computer whiz from Seattle.
David could be using his genius to get ahead in school but is content instead to spend his time playing with his home computer.
He soon becomes a skilled hacker, good enough to break into the school’s computer to change his grades. Just the same, these skills get him into trouble when he unintentionally breaks into WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a Pentagon computer that controls missile tracking systems.
Thinking he is playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War”, David accidentally triggers a military computer programme that could start World War III: WOPR simulates a Soviet nuclear attack on the US and begins to plan American retaliation in earnest.
Soon enough, the government figures out what has happened and goes after David. He is almost arrested by the FBI but escapes with the help of Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), his feisty and intelligent girlfriend.
Together, they go on the run and elude government agents as David tries to figure out how to undo the damage he has done with his home computer. Their only hope is to track down Dr Stephen Falken (John Wood), the man who designed the WOPR computer and enlist his help to reverse the countdown.
This leads to an intense finale where man battles machine for the fate of the free world.
As WOPR cycles through all the possible war scenarios one by one it learns that there can be no real winner, due to Mutual Assured Destruction, and the mission is aborted.
It’s an exciting movie that offers much food for thought about thermonuclear war as the ultimate no-win situation. John Badham directs briskly and the movie benefited from excellent performances by a gifted and well-chosen cast.
Matthew Broderick became a star thanks to his turn as the smart-aleck who has to stay one step ahead of the adults to save the world, and Ally Sheedy gave an appealingly witty and lively performance as his resourceful girlfriend.
Dabney Coleman and Barry Corbin were appropriately menacing as military bigwigs, while John Wood added a humorously eccentric element as the hermetic Falken.
WarGames became a hit with both critics and audiences, earning several Oscar nominations and making over $80 million in America alone. It also inspired several other computer-themed films like Electric Dreams and Weird Science.
As countless hacking incidents have proven since the film’s release, it was definitely a movie ahead of its time.
Dr Stephen Falken