WarGames: A Cold War Movie with a Modern Hot Button Issue

by Paul Deeter

1983 Spoilers Ahead

Nothing quite shows its age like an 80's film. While simultaneously one of the most radical decades for science-fiction and original content films, it's aspirations often exceed themselves. So many science-fiction films have caused their own irrelevance after time because of their desire to predict the future and just how quickly it adapts to complex concepts and changes. For example, Back to the Future: Part II is an interesting film because of its setting in 2015, only 26 years after the film was released in 1989. The film suffered in reviews compared to the other two titles in the trilogy; and most of the reviews listed still on Rotten Tomatoes put it at 66% with a consensus reached prior to 2015. However, in 2015, it saw a large boost in relevance and even had a re-release in certain theaters, specifically on the date McFly returned to "the future" on October 21st, 2015. I actually remember this release clearly because I was working at Marcus Theatres at the time. We even had a DeLorean show up in the parking lot!

While films like that one have the endearing charm and novelty of re-appearing in relevance, kind of like when Pi Day comes around once a year or Star Wars day (May the Fourth), other 80's films have fallen into obscurity. With films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV the wrinkles are easier to see. There was nothing quite like the Cold War genre in 80's films because the fear of the Cold War and the Communist armies across the world finally breaking down the Iron Curtain of the era and invading our sacred homeland. Mind you, some of these films, including Top Gun, focus more closely on the male machismo of the lifestyle in the Navy to stay relevant in its fun to this day. A film centered around glorifying the U.S. Navy during quiet foreign unease is an easier contender for a Hollywood classic than a film like Red Dawn which spins a tale so unbelievable that the most realistic part of the project is that teenagers can pull off an uprising while parents are gone. So with the topic of the fear of war on the horizon, a time of the unknown, what's left of this genre of films to stay relevant when time has far abandoned the reality of the Cold War erupting?

In 1983, a year that brought us the gangster epic Scarface and horror films including Christine, a low budget and soon to be box office success film with Matthew Broderick was released: WarGames. This film which was adapted from a script called The Genius by Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lacker, which was focused on the idea of a dying scientist or one like Stephen Hawking, who's genius falls victim to his deteriorating health. In the story, the genius that is at risk to dying with the brilliant mind is only saved from the creative young mind of a teenager.

The film's concept involved the young David played with a young enthusiasm and charisma by Matthew Broderick at the peak of his career. His interests could simply be summed up as a gamer with a love for old school computer games, or at least games that would be considered old school today, spending his time occupying arcades and downloading games on his family computer. This era of gaming was a burst in mainstream access to computers and arcades, and shortly would go on to the mass production of gaming consoles, entering a whole new level (pun intended) of a gaming community. Therefore the movie tapped both into the genre of the Cold War limbo and also the explosion of young gamers. It was bound for success from the get-go. David is not a successful student however, skipping classes and even increasing his marks by hacking his school's grading system (ah what a time.) This is how he meets Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) who becomes intrigued by his wit and rebellious behavior, and just so happens to befriend David right at the time of his big mistake in the film.

With his growing interest, David does his best to find and play every game released, which to be fair is definitely a mood. In this search the rumors of a deceased scientist named Stephen Falken's work on an advanced computer system with unreleased games come afloat. In his journey to finding Falken's lost technology, David all too easily hacks into his software, and becomes intrigued by a game called "Global Thermonuclear War". It's from here, and his decision to start a game with Jennifer playing as the axis or the Soviet Union, that David puts the country and the world at risk by triggering a false scare to the United States FBI and escalated counter-reactions from WOPR the film's War Operation Plan Response by the organization NORAD. In a game that seems unwinnable and one step too far to stop, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are stuck in a "who shoots first" game, one that is a complete reality.

Outside of the brilliant concept, the reactions and actions of NORAD and the FBI feel very realistic, even in the sense that they'd suspect the teenage David of working for the terrorists. The movie moves swiftly in its journey of David trying to reach out to the assumed to be deceased computer inventor Falken, who seems to be the only one who truly understands and birthed the A.I. nicknamed Joshua, after his dead son. It all comes to a fantastic climax, which if you haven't gone so far to stop having not seen the movie, beware of the spoiler. The only way to stop Joshua, and end the computer's control of the system of missiles and nukes after overriding human access, is to have it play a game against itself. This comes to the idea of the "unwinnable" game. With an example as simple as Tic-Tac-Toe, the computer attempts to defeat itself, but only comes to hundreds if not thousands of draws. After failing to win Tic-Tac-Toe, it even tries to win a game of Global Thermonuclear War against itself. Much like the consistent series of draws from the game before, Joshua can't find a win in this war, using as many actual political techniques as possible, and even staying neutral to attempt one side to beat the other. All this goes to show, as if the same as there is no draw, there is also no win, in this all-out-war. Simulation, or no.

This ending is so resonant, almost 40 years later. The whole concept alone, beginning with the standalone scene of two workers guarding the big nuclear buttons that could end the world, and one of them unsuccessfully completing the scenario of pulling said trigger, is timeless. It begs to ask what the human touch is, when the idea of computer's AI growing and becoming more competent, while also dialing up the fear of the idea of being one wrong button push away from ending the world. It was an early proponent of the concept of "hacking" in a movie, which would go on to be an existing genre years to come. The following is quoted from an article compiled on Wikipedia, from the source "The WarGames Scenario: Regulating Teenagers and Teenaged Technology":

"WarGames was the first mass-consumed, visual media with the central theme of remote computing as well as hacking, and it served as both an amplifier vehicle and framework for America's earliest discussion of information technology. In the wake of the film, major news media focused on the potential for the "WarGames scenario" to exist in reality. This focus contributed to the creation of the first U.S. federal internet policy, the Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984." - Stephanie Schulte

This proves that the film didn't just have an impact on the film industry, but also built up awareness for the issues of the film itself. Instead of being a reflection of an issue in the world; as an example of a slasher film honing in on the fear of the rising presence of serial killers in society, this film created a fear that didn't exist in a widespread sense. It built up this fear, one that would continue into modern society. While we aren't in a Cold War, we are always wondering about the "what if?" of war. Thus the timeless hot button issue of this film can exist today just as it did in 1983. The enemy of an 80's film can be remade, and is famously done in the very unsuccessful American remake of Red Dawn (2012). While Red Dawn again sets itself up for failure by painting a timely enemy, this time North Korea, the movie WarGames needs no remake. A remake might even ruin the legacy of the original.

80's films exist to this day as time capsules of a different time, and even mood. The success of sporting events and the wins for America inside the ring. The spectacle of films like Empire Strikes Back which favored practical effects and succeeded in awe from then to now. Some of these films fell victim to the time, and can only be appreciated from afar, as an uninvolved audience. There are films of this decade that will never feel the same again, but that's okay. Films like WarGames are an example that timeless movies, such as classics from even further back in the early reel years, can survive. The fear is alive in WarGames and with quality of the picture and its influence and various successes it has proven that there's no horror movie scarier than a war film, and the idea of losing an unwinnable game.

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