Okay so this film is a little bit of a guilty pleasure. We watched Wargames, 1983 starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in a non-John Hughes film. I really liked this movie growing up and I think it appealed to my kids in the same way.
The movie follows a high-school computer hacker who accidentally breaks into a military computer and almost starts WWIII. All the while, he thinks he’s just playing a new video games from a game company while he’s telling the military’s computers that Russia is attacking the US with nuclear bombs. My kids found the concept of a high-school hacker amusing.
The film is definitely dated in terms of technology. The computer dials up through a rotary phone. Our hacker has to use 51/4 inch floppy disks to run his programs because his computer doesn’t really have a hard drive. There’s a 7-11. I honestly haven’t seen one of those in years. Throw in the 1980s hairstyles, clothing, and Dabney Coleman and you have a quintessential 80s flick.
What I had forgotten was how much this film actually addressed some concepts that were years ahead of its time. The first idea was to computerize human jobs in order to remove human error. We’re still arguing this concept as we move steadily towards computer-driven cars. The second is, of course, AI, which I believe is technically impossible. Computers can only do what they are told. They have two settings, on and off. Here, the computer “learns” a key philosophical concept of futility by playing tic-tac-toe. Lastly, we have the idea of games versus reality.
There’s one great point in the film in which David, Broderick’s character asks the computer if they are playing a game or if what they are doing is real. The AI computer responds, “What’s the difference?” When you really think about it, this can break your brain. After all, both are real in the sense that they actually exist but the concept of game and how it relates to play are really tough to tease apart. After all, do professional athletes play a game or are they working? What’s the difference? If it’s money, then is gambling really a form of play? I teach a class in game studies so we often spend the first two weeks discussing the meaning of play and game and then we watch The Game and many minds get blown.
Back to Wargames for a moment. My kids wanted to know why the military would even have games on their computers and so we talked a bit about how games and war are similar. Both rely on tactics. Both attempt to have a winner and a loser in a contest of skill, numbers, luck, and strength. Both have rules. Both can have cheaters. Chess is really just a symbolic version of war. The military uses games like “America’s Army” for training and as a recruitment tool. Wargames is actually a clever play on the meaning of the two words.
What I noticed this time around was the acting. Matthew Broderick plays a rather meek teen. He gets very submissive around authority figures, looks at the floor, and speaks in a contrite tone when he is being addressed by most of the adults. When he talks to adults that have no authority over him, he behaves humbly and actually praises their skills. It’s a very different kind of teen then we see in movies today who are often loud, aggressive, and confrontational when it comes to adults or authority figures.
I had forgotten Ally Sheedy was in this film. Honestly, her role as Jennifer in the movie seems at first to be just to serve as a romantic interest but a careful look tells us more. She’s the Watson to David’s Sherlock Holmes. He explains to her what he is doing and thus explains it to us the audience providing a reason for the exposition. He’s portrayed as a non-athletic geek. She is his reverse. He takes the bus. She rides a motorcycle. He stays in his room. She exercises. He can’t swim. She can. When he freaks out after discovering that he broke into a military computer, she calms him down. Even though she really doesn’t do a whole lot to affect the overall story plot, she has character. The funny part is that the film doesn’t draw much attention to it.
I actually really loved the snarky general played by Barry Corbin. When the computer takes over the US missile controls and threatens to begin thermonuclear war, he turns to the computer expert and says, “You know. Your fancy computer system really sucks.” It’s just such a wonderfully sarcastic line and Corbin delivers it with comic perfection. It took me a while to figure out that Stephen Falken is actually a reference to Stephen Hawkins, the brilliant physicist. Falken is your stereotypical genius antisocial inventor. His only unique quality is that he’s given up on life after the loss of his child and wife. Somehow David and Jennifer reach him and he comes along with them. He doesn’t solve anything. His role is merely to get the military leaders to listen to David for a moment by confirming that the computer is playing a game with them.
Wargames is a cool movie. It has a simple message that no one wins in a nuclear war. I think we can pretty much agree with that idea. While our relations with Russia have changed, this film could still be made today.