Judge Erich Asperschlager would prefer a nice game of chess. Thanks.
When Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes wrote WarGames in 1979, studio execs didn't know what to make of it. Desktop personal computers? Phone modems? Text-based video games? They thought it was science fiction. Show WarGames to a young person in 2012 and they'll likely use their smartphone to text you those same questions. Desktop personal computers? Phone modems? Text-based video games? Is this science fiction?
Those of us who lived through the 1980s understand WarGames' place in film and pop culture history. When I was a kid, I loved watching Matthew Broderick play nerdy MacGyver with pull tabs and pay phones. It was cool. I probably didn't understand the threat of impending nuclear destruction at age 8, but I had a great time watching it unfold onscreen. And by "onscreen" I mean in full frame VHS video on a 13-inch color tube television. If you're old enough to understand that last sentence, chances are, you dug WarGames too.
Facts of the Case
With soldiers unwilling to launch nuclear missiles, the bigwigs at NORAD decide to take control of the US arsenal away from General Beringer (Barry Corbin, Dallas) and his men, and turn it over to military scientist Dr. McKittrick (Dabney Coleman, Cloak And Dagger) and a supercomputer nicknamed "W.O.P.R."
In Seattle, teenaged computer whiz David (Matthew Broderick, Project X) tries to access a California video game company and accidentally hacks into W.O.P.R. instead. Thinking the advanced military computer, which calls itself "Joshua," belongs to the game company, David invites his sort-of girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy, Short Circuit) to play some "games" buried in the code by the machine's inventor, Professor Falken (John Wood, Ladyhawke). Instead of choosing tic-tac-toe or chess, David and Jennifer play a global thermonuclear war simulation that plays out as real on the NORAD command center screens and nearly causes a real war. When David discovers his mistake, he tries to cover his tracks, which seems to work until he finds out that Joshua, in control of very real nuclear warheads, is still playing the game and won't stop until he wins.
When WarGames was made, its tech wasn't just of its time; it was bleeding edge. Technology changes quickly, which is great for society, but lousy for movies. Just look at early CGI from the '90s. Those effects look dated now. Just imagine how rough those movies will look in 20 years. WarGames might be mired in '80s culture, but it's still a thrilling adventure.
The film's journey from script to screen was its own adventure for Lasker and Parkes. Their original idea was about an old genius who is tracked down by a young prodigy. They didn't add computer games and nuclear war until later. The film went into production under the direction of Martin Brest, who wanted to take WarGames in a darker direction than the writers did. After butting heads with the director a few too many times, Lasker and Parkes were fired. Not long after, Brest himself was fired by the studio and replaced by John Badham, who asked the writers to come back and help him finish the picture.
The version of WarGames that Badham brought to the screen is a big story in a small package. Despite the global threat, most of the movie takes place over a couple of days, and in a few locations. The cast list is packed with small roles and extras, but there's only a handful of core characters. Front and center are Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy's unwitting outlaws. This film captures the young actors before Bueller and The Breakfast Club, and they come across as believable, awkward teenagers. The relative newcomers are bolstered by memorable performances from established actors Barry Corbin as the colorful, cigar-chomping General Beringer, John Wood as the reclusive Falken, and '80s mainstay Dabney Coleman as McKittrick, whose faith in computers is undermined by a kid with a modem and too much time on his hands.
It's not immediately clear whether WarGames comes down on the side of technology or humanity. Although McKittrick's plan to use computers to replace manned missile silos turns out to be misguided, who's to say W.O.P.R. wouldn't have worked if David hadn't stuck his human nose where it didn't belong in the first place? WarGames looks old, but it asks prescient questions that resonate in our modern, connected world—raising issues about lax online security and over-reliance on computers long before they became serious problems. It's difficult to appreciate now just how forward-looking the technology in this movie was at the time. David does things with computers that audiences hadn't seen before. Even if some aspects of his hacking are suspect, it's still a more accurate depiction of computer use than just about every movie since. Too bad those nuances will be lost on modern viewers, who—let's face it—will end up watching WarGames on their four-inch phone screen.
WarGames comes to Blu-ray with a gorgeous AVC-encoded 1.85:1 1080p transfer that accurately represents the film as shot by director of photography William Fraker (whose resume includes Rosemary's Baby and Tombstone). At first glance, WarGames might look soft, but that haze is by design. Too often, Blu-rays are praised for razor sharp clarity and lack of grain. That's fine for native HD productions, but these old films should look like they were shot on film—and WarGames does. Detail, color, and black levels are all strong, without any of the digital tinkering that mars too many Blu-ray releases. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is likewise true to its source. There's good separation between voices, effects, and Arthur Rubenstein's playful electronic score. The audio hits hard when the movie calls for it, and pulls back when it doesn't.
The bonus features are identical to those found on the 2008 WarGames: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD—minus the interactive weapons gallery, screensaver, and look at the straight-to-DVD sequel. With one exception, everything here is worth watching (or listening to). It's a great way to learn not only about the making of the movie, but also early computer culture and the history of the Cold War. It's worth noting that the only way to access the extras is via the pop-up menu, while the movie is playing. Talk about outdated:
• Audio commentary with John Badham, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter Parkes: This conversational commentary with the writers and director provides plenty of insight into the writing, casting, and production process.
• "Loading WarGames" (45:04): A lengthy documentary that picks up on the same material as the commentary, delving into the twists and turns that took a screenplay called The Genius through two directors and multiple drafts, until it became WarGames.
• "Attack of the Hackers" (13:32): These days, hackers are associated with identity theft, but when the film was made, "hackers" wasn't assumed to be criminals. This overview of proto-hacking features interviews with computer experts like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and John Draper, whose "blue box" technology gave tech enthusiasts an easy way to make free phone calls.
• "Inside NORAD: Cold War Fortress" (10:50): A history of the Cold War as it escalated under President Reagan, plus a look inside the real NORAD, comparing it with the fictional command center in the film.
• "Tic-Tac-Toe: A True Story" (4:29): The disc's most skippable extra is this fake educational film that tells the fake history of the children's game that plays a key role in the movie.
With its specific Cold War and early computer references, WarGames may not play to modern audiences the way it did to those of us who saw it in the '80s. For those willing to brave a world before Windows-based operating systems and high-speed DSL, however, it remains a taut thriller that predicted our current struggle with online security. The Blu-ray might not come with any new extras, but a solid hi-def presentation makes it a worthy upgrade for early adopters.
The only winning move is not to find it guilty.
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