Monday, December 28, 2015

#1,960. WarGames (1983)

Directed By: John Badham

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood

Tag line: "Is it a game, or is it real?"

Trivia: According to John Badham, the scene of the jeep trying to crash through the gate at NORAD and turning over was an actual accident. The jeep was supposed to continue through the gate

While it’s anti-nuke message may not resonate as strongly today as it did in the 1980s (when the Cold War was in full swing), there’s enough danger and excitement scattered throughout director John Badham’s WarGames to ensure it’s still a fun watch.

Teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is a computer whiz. He’s so good, in fact, that he has figured out a way to hack into his school’s network, changing both his grades and those of his new “friend”, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy). So, when David hears through the grapevine that a game manufacturer is planning to release a slew of video games in a few months, he does his darnedest to hook into the company’s computer system so he can get a sneak peek at them. 

After dialing in to what he believes is their mainframe, David and Jennifer select a game titled “Global Thermonuclear War”. Unfortunately, David hacked the wrong computer; he actually found his way into the military’s fully automated defense system, which, once the "game" started, became convinced that the Soviet Union was launching a surprise nuclear attack against the United States!

The military’s top men, located in the underground headquarters of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), take the necessary steps to retaliate against the Russians. Once they realize the Soviets aren’t attacking, both the system’s administrator Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and Army Gen. Jack Berringer (Barry Corbin) order an investigation, which leads right back to David. 

Convinced he’s an enemy agent, the NORAD officials take the frightened teenager into custody. But the danger hasn't ended, because even though David has logged off, the system is still playing Global Thermonuclear War, and unless they can convince it that war hasn't broken out, the NORAD computer will launch an array of nuclear missiles, and it will be "game over" for the entire world in 24 short hours!

Setting the stage with an intense opening sequence at a nuclear missile silo (which features a very young Michael Madsen as one of two soldiers with his finger on the launch button), WarGames is both a solid adventure movie (to prevent the computer from starting World War III, David and Jennifer go to great lengths to track down the system’s original programmer, Professor Falkan, played by John Wood) and a first-class thriller (a scene where David sneaks out of the NORAD command center is a real nail-biter).

Broderick is convincing as the cocky computer nerd, and he and Sheedy make a good team as unlikely heroes going up against the U.S. military. Equally impressive is Dabney Coleman (playing the heavy once again, like he did in 9 to 5 and Modern Problems) as the suspicious administrator trying to cover his own ass, yet my favorite character is Barry Corbin’s Gen. Berringer, a hard-nosed leader of men who isn’t afraid let McKittrick know exactly what he thinks of his new-fangled defense system. The continuous give-and-take between Corbin and Coleman results in some of the film’s biggest laughs (as McKittrick and his associates discuss how to reprogram the computer, Gen. Berringer says, quite emphatically, that he’d “piss on a spark plug” if he thought it would help).

Modern audiences may find the final scene - complete with a “moral to the story” - a bit heavy-handed, though I assure you it didn’t seem as such back in the day, when nuclear war felt like a genuine threat.  Yet even if the finale does have you rolling your eyes a little, WarGames still packs plenty of thrills into what came before, and is a movie will keep you on the edge of your seat for the better part of 114 minutes.

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