"Is this a game, or is it real?"
WarGames can safely be called a generational film, a movie that came out right at the beginning of a change in the world, that managed to cinematically capture and present this change and where it was taking us. While you can't call it a handbook for hacking or the reason hackers hack, many computer techs cite WarGames as a favorite or influential work. It can also safely be said WarGames was a film that brought hacking and the power of computers more directly into the eyes of the mainstream media, for better or for worse.
Directed by John Badman (Point of No Return, Stakeout, Blue Thunder), written by Lawrence Lasker (Sneakers) and Walter F. Parkes (Sneakers, producer on Men in Black), and set in Seattle, WarGames is, from top to bottom, a film that came ahead of the curve. It discussed computers and hacking before anyone thought much about the subjects at all. It was set in Seattle before anyone outside of Washington State had heard of it, certainly well before companies like Microsoft and Starbucks managed to make the city part of the collective consciousness.
As always, a thumbnail synopsis is presented for convenience. David Lightman (Matthew Broderick, Election, Family Business, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) is an intelligent high school student who immerses himself in computers as a way to remain occupied amid the boring drudgery of the rest of his life. While phone phreaking and computer hacking for a computer game company's unlisted CPU number he instead finds a line into the operations computer for NORAD. Not realizing this isn't what he was looking for, David starts playing one of the "new" games he was looking for. Instead, he starts a World War III simulation on the NORAD computer. The humans working in NORAD don't know it's a simulation, however, and react as if it is all real. As the film progresses it turns into a question of idiot savant technology and perceptions of reality, with a few twists along the way.
For a film made in 1983, this video transfer is in remarkable shape. Especially for a non-anamorphic transfer. While colors are a bit faded, this is a function of the film technology of the time, rather than a fault of the transfer process. Occasionally there are minor amounts of grain, but never enough to be distracting, nor is it a constant. Edges are always crisp, and colors never waver. There are no visible instances of artifacting. The sound mix is Dolby 5.1, but since the film is a drama, there isn't much opportunity to use the surround stages. Dialogue is always clear and discernable, however, and never do you find yourself fiddling with volume controls to find a constantly moving "good" sound level to watch the film with.
The major extra on the disc is the audio commentary, with the director and the two writers. This commentary is one of the better tracks I've heard on a disc, and can definitely serve as a rough outline for other commentary tracks. The trio covers the background of the movie and the story, discusses areas where they changed script or story because of this reason or that, mentions oddities in set or acting, and is overall amusing, engaging, entertaining and informative. A major plus. Also, the interactive menus are very well done. They load quickly and are entertaining, mood setting.
The acting in the film is spot on, and is mostly a collection of recognizable faces. The film marked the debut of Matthew Broderick, who of course went on to become permanently scribed in the hearts and minds of a generation as a high schooler who deftly plays a city to his tune as Ferris Bueller. Here he perfectly plays a code minded genius who has hardly any attention for the realities of people or things uninvolved with computers. Dabney Coleman (Cloak and Dagger, Tootsie, Nine to Five) is the corporate minded computerist working for NORAD, here cast just as his star began to fall in the Hollywood landscape. Ally Sheedy (High Art, St. Elmo's Fire, The Breakfast Club) plays a classmate of Broderick's character who gets caught up in the whirlwind of events.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One troubling complaint about the story is the way the script is written with regard to gender. The few female roles are underwritten, downplayed and side-shifted. Sheedy's character is present only to provide Broderick an on-camera person to explain story points to so the audience doesn't get lost. Coleman has a female assistant whose only purpose is to run frantically around retrieving reports and people for him. The film is overwhelmingly male, and does tend to stand out for this. However, considering it is a 1983 film, this is somewhat understandable; attitudes were still in the early stages of shifting in Hollywood at that time.
Other than this, it's really hard to find anything else to complain about in this disc. This is a top-notch transfer. The only glaring complaint that can honestly be made about the disc itself is the lack of an anamorphic video transfer.
WarGames, as previously mentioned, was a film that came at a key time for a generation. While not as dramatic as other "generational films," without subject matter quite as heavy as Death or Vietnam or a Mid-Life Crisis, it nevertheless spoke clearly to certain segments of the population in the early '80s. Especially those segments who were playing with computers at the time. These days most people have, or use on a daily basis, a personal computer. In the early '80s however, only hobbyists, engineers and dabbler "early adopter" types were finding out what computers were and how useful they are. WarGames foretold of the dependence we would come to have on machines, and also played out a few problems for us that would come of that dependence. It makes for interesting viewing.
MGM is to be highly commended for their work on this disc. They are reprimanded for the non-anamorphic video. Otherwise, nice job.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director John Badham and Writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes
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