Judge Christopher Kulik's computer shot off a nuclear missile with this review attached.
Shall we play a game?
Yes! Let's play Global Thermonuclear War!
That game has not been played in 25 years. It was played on outdated technology. Need more information to begin game. Do you have an installation disc?
Yes, I do! This is the 1983 film WarGames and it was recently released by MGM in an anniversary edition. It replaces an initial 1998 DVD and it is now fully loaded with special features.
Insert disc now. Loading…
Facts of the Case
Teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick, Then She Found Me) is a genius when it comes to hacking into computer systems. Such talents enable him to illegally gain access into his high school's computer, where he's able to raise his grades at the click of a button. The first person he reveals this to is Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club), a fellow student who doesn't look at Lightman as a computer geek but rather an average guy with a nice smile and a funny sense of humor. Jennifer is turned on by his wizardry and decides to hang out with him more often in his bedroom as he eagerly attempts to get sneak previews of video games.
Believing he's hacked into the computer of a toy company, he gets a list of games to choose from, with the last being "Global Thermonuclear War" (yep, sounds pretty serious!). Of course, David chooses it, and pretends to be Russia attacking the U.S. Within minutes, lights and warnings blare all over the central control center at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Military general Jack Beringer (Barry Corbin, No Country for Old Men) and Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman, Cloak & Dagger) are obviously alarmed, thinking the Soviet Union is ready to go boom-boom. When they discover it was really a computer simulation, they demand the perpetrator be arrested. To the Department of Defense's computer, however, the game is still going strong…
For a quarter of a century, WarGames has remained a pop-culture hit, a once-provocative inside view into the world of cyberspace and hackers. Now, it's more embraced as an enjoyable piece of nostalgia that harkens people back to the days of Ms. Pac-Man and the Cold War. I didn't see the film for the first time until a few years ago, and I actually got caught up with its "high-concept" idea and just went along for the ride, trying very hard to not think this could actually happen. It pushes emotional buttons while at the same time providing a high-tech rollercoaster ride and making us question our humanity.
Expertly handled by craftsman John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film has been cited as his most influential, if not his most entertaining. At the time of the film's release, the idea of owning a personal computer was still revolutionary, with reasonably-priced monitors becoming widely available only a year before. Few people really knew of the underground network of computer hackers who were not just illegally tapping into cyberspace but also knew how to make free phone calls out of booths. Badham introduces the characters—and the world they live in—with solid skill, while also utilizing the control center (the most expensive set ever built for a film, at $1 million) to maximum advantage.
With that in mind, I'm surprised the film didn't receive an Oscar nomination for Production Design. Still, it received a still-impressive three nods: Sound, Cinematography, and Original Screenplay. My favorite element is still the performances. Broderick plays David with just the right amount of innocence and eagerness, while Sheedy is just plain irresistible as the spunky love interest. Dabney Coleman has always been one of my favorite actors; while he feels underused here, he makes every scene his own with trademark nuances. Tony-award winner John Wood (An Ideal Husband) comes late in the film and is a special treat, as is Barry Corbin, playing the Army General with delicious Southern relish.
MGM has been churning out a lot of Collector's/Anniversary Editions lately. In the case of WarGames, they celebrate its 25th anniversary with not just an updated release, but also a direct-to-DVD sequel (Wargames: The Dead Code), and two months ago they even had an one-night showing at selected theatres across the country. As for the new DVD release, there is good news and bad news. The good news is there is a generous helping of supplemental material here to jump into, with the bad news being the visual and audio components are pretty much exactly the same as the initial 1998 disc.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print is satisfactory but could have used some improvement. Grain is visible at times, but my biggest complaint is the dark look of many scenes, and this is particularly evident when David is arrested outside a 7-Eleven. On the audio front, we have the same 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track, as well as the same French mono track offered before. MGM has decided to include an additional 2.0 track in English, as well as a new Spanish mono track. Even more quizzically, they have dumped the French subtitles, making the choices now between English and Spanish only. What's up with that?
Also returning from the 1998 DVD is a highly informative audio commentary with director John Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. All three are great to listen to, and the track is a must-listen for all the film's fans. As far as new extras, we start off with a brand new documentary, "Loading WarGames," a 45-minute retrospective that has interviews from the majority of the cast and lead crew, minus Dabney Coleman and John Wood. Nearly half of his doc is devoted to the writing process, as well as the uncomfortable chain of events after Martin Brest was hired to direct. Lots of good stuff to be found here; thankfully, it doesn't repeat too much information from the commentary.
Next up are three featurettes, with two containing extended interviews from the doc as they cover the influence on hacker culture and what NORAD really looks like. Military personnel participated on the latter, with an update on a brand-new facility that is now above ground (the original underground area will now be used for emergency reasons). Rounding out the bonus features are a gallery, a sneak peek at Wargames: The Dead Code, the original 1983 trailer, and a downloadable screensaver. The sneak peek for the sequel looked more like a remake to me, and going by Judge Paul Pritchard's fine review, I intend to steer clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have few complaints with WarGames. The story could have been polished up and tightened more, as the first 40 minutes go slower than I would have preferred. It's only when Broderick gets arrested halfway through that the film really kicks into high gear. Some will surely not buy all of the script's contrivances, but then they would be taking the farfetched premise way too seriously.
A lot of people seem to be in agreement that the film was ahead of its time, and certain aesthetics certainly were. However, even in 1983, the film wasn't all that original, particularly when it came to the theme of man vs. machine; it had already been explored in many other films including 2001: A Space Odyssey and the vastly underrated Colossus: The Forbin Project, the latter of which was briefly mentioned in the doc. Still, the final moments WarGames remain effective, allowing the film to stand on its own ground.
The program is now fully installed. Would you like to play?
No, thanks! I don't want to feed the fire and influence MGM to churn out more unnecessary sequels and future double-dips. How about a nice game of chess, however?
The 25th Anniversary edition of WarGames disappoints in terms of tech specs, but it's so jam-packed with great extras, the court will drop all charges. Court is adjourned!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director John Badham and Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.