I plan to diversify my writing by going into a different venue of reviews – films. Why? Because I can. And don’t worry, the game reviews will continue (time and finances permitting, of course). I will also be taking requests as well for this, just like my game reviews.
However, now, we have the maiden voyage of my new venture to contend with. What film could possibly make a good first one?
I looked around, and then I found, the film for you and me…
And now it’s…War Games time!
That’s righ, the 1983 classic in which Ferris Bueller nearly starts World War III. And, let me be blunt, this is just good stuff. Made in the waning years of the Cold War, this film demonstrates and put to use that era’s fear of global nuclear annihilation due to the near open warfare conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and how easily it could be set off...were it not for the thrilling exploits of Ferris Bueller, his girlfriend, and a scientist who totally isn't British Carl Sagan.
However, before we get to the thrilling exploits of Matthew Broderick, we get a few scenes to start us off with some United States Air Force missile combat crew manning their stations right before a drill occurs, one of them being unable to fire the missiles when instructed to do so. This is apparently the case in a lot of places, as twenty-two percent of all missile commanders didn’t fire the missiles either. So it gets decided to hand it over to a NORAD super computer.
Because that always works well. Just ask the people onboard Discovery One or at Aperture Science.
In spite of some objections, WOPR (an acronym of “War Operation Plan Response”) is placed in charge of all of the United States’ missile silos and kept an eye on by the brass.
Then we cut to Seattle where, at an arcade, Matthew Broderick is playing Galaga (thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did). I’m aware that he has a name (David Lightman, for those parties interested), you know as well as I that I’m just going to call him Ferris Bueller, so let’s get on with it. Bueller is apparently a complete slacker in spite of being brilliant enough to work computers like nobody’s business. And, much like Marty McFly after him, is late for school as soon as we are introduced to him.
Given a failing grade, as well as seeing that his very obvious love interest (the only female character that gets an entire scene with focus on her and gets named by the time we see her) got one as well, he manages to hack into the school’s computer and change it. This doesn’t impress Jennifer at all, and he changes it back...until she leaves, upon which he actually changes her grade once more to a perfect one. In this, and in a scene following at dinner at the Bueller Household, we get some wonderfully shameless advertising for then-relevant pieces of technology.
Learning about a new computer system called ‘Protovision’, Ferris is able to using a technique called ‘war dialing’ (as it became known after this movie), where he uses the phone system to call up every number in a certain area to learn where computers are. In this case, he sets his computer to call every computer in Sunnyvale, California in order to find any programs that might still be within the company. And on a computer screen of green and black, Ferris and Jennifer book a flight to Paris before they come across a screen that gives a simple “Logon:” option. A few attempts are made before they manage to get the system to reveal a list of games to them.
Some of them are pretty much your standard fare. Hearts, Checkers, Chess, Bridge…Theatrewide Tactical Warfare?! As the list gets to the bottom, it takes on a far more sinister edge until the last item on the list is reached. And, interestingly, it is separated by more space from the other items on the list: “Global Thermonuclear War”.
|It says "click here to advance the plot".|
Taking a print-out to some friends of his (who are oddly reminiscent of an even geekier version of the Lone Gunmen), who determine that it’s something from a government computer. Pointed towards someone named ‘Falken’ as the man who created the system, Ferris begins a montage wherein we are viciously attacked by synthesizers. Ferris does some research on Falken – apparently a computer expert by the name of Stephen Falken – on such outdated technologies as film slides, card catalogues, and books, of all things! – all the while using password after password from the writings that end up being incorrect and terminating his connection.
From the look of it, Stephen Falken is the ultimate nerd. Or was, anyway, he’s apparently dead. While he was alive, however, he was pushing forward in the field of computer sciences. He had developed a way to teach machines how to play games, and to make them learn from their mistakes.
So, when Skynet takes over, we know who to blame.
However, it’s still a year before Terminator, and Ferris finally finds the password in the name of Falken’s son, Joshua, and gets access – unknowingly – to the WOPR system. And the system, apparently going off of its own programing, asks him if he wants to play a game. Leading to the iconic exchange:
“Love to. How about Global Thermonuclear War?”
“WOULDN’T YOU PREFER A GOOD GAME OF CHESS?”
“Later. Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.”
|No, not these War Games...|
And thus, the titular WarGames begin, with the click of a mouse and Ferris picking the Soviet Union (COMMUNIST!). He and his girlfriend delight in aiming missiles directly for the United States in a simulation…or so they believe. Back at NORAD, of course, this is taken as the real deal due to WOPR being in control of their systems. WOPR feeds them false data and begins to retaliate against the non-existent attack from the Soviet Union – beginning the series of events that could lead right into World War III.
As WOPR begins to take “winning the game” into its own hands, the film takes on a decidedly darker edge and the tension is immediately set high as it provides a literally countdown timer to Nuclear Armageddon. The last two thirds of the film manage to maintain this up until the conclusion, wherein WOPR learns that tic-tac-toe is a rather stupid game, and so is nuclear war. And thus, the Great War is held off for another ninety-four years, and the day is saved.
This film receives pretty much universal praise, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the perfect thriller for its era – using the ever-looming threat of nuclear attack as the source of tension for the duration. Surprisingly, however, this film doesn’t paint the Soviets as some sort of evil. The only real antagonist in the film is WOPR, and only then out of innocent ignorance over the consequences of what it’s doing.
Matthew Broderick deserves particular praise as well, as the lead. Somehow he is able to pull off being a brilliant but lazy slacker in a way that doesn’t come off as being a complete sociopath. Being only twenty one at the time, he brings that youth exuberance to his performance that he…still brings to performances despite being over fifty now at the time that I’m writing this up. Here, though, it works well enough. He also brings around the technical know-how of his character to life in a believable way, though that may be attributed more to screenwriters Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parker, and Walon Green than Broderick’s acting.
John Wood’s Stephen Falken (oh, yeah. Falken is actually alive, spoiler alert!) comes off when he is introduced as a fatalist, knowing full well (somehow) what WOPR is up to and is deciding that if humanity is going to take the pains to plan out its own destruction, then it deserves to destroy itself and for nature to “start again” as he puts it. A somewhat relatable sentiment, though given the fact that he could stop the end of the world with a phone call to NORAD, he comes off as being a real jerk. Though, luckily he is convinced by Ferris and Jennifer to help, leading into the last twenty minutes of the film, which are definitely the tensest (and rightly so).
|I have a feeling I know the only winning move for this one...|
I get this strange feeling, given his speech to the two leads about the futility of the nuclear struggle and the fact that nature will just start again after humanity is gone that he would have been happy in Operation Golden Age with just the slightest push. In the end, though, he agrees to help thanks to Ferris and Jennifer refusing to give up in spite of it all, which does redeem him a bit.
The film actually has a shortage of technobabble all around, with things either simply being shown in action or explained in a very concise, believable way. Again, the dialogue – particularly as delivered by Broderick – is set up for just this, and War Games really outshines a lot of more recent films in this regard. To put it against a film from a decade and some change later, take Hackers where it had a few moments where you’d go “Nobody talks like that”.
And, of course, while the film delivers it’s anti-war message of ‘the only winning move is not to play’ (in a way that isn’t jarring in tone after seeing an unintelligible Italian-American and a
Russian beating each other to death), there is a rather startling thing I
realized after the fact: WOPR could just
as easily do it again. At the end of the
film, WOPR is put into a simulation of tic-tac-toe by Ferris and Falken and
learns that – much like nuclear war – there is absolutely no point to playing
it because there is no chance for victory.
However it never seems to acknowledge the sanctity of human life. When asked if the simulation is real or just a game, it blatantly asks what the difference is. And while it learns that there is no chance for victory in nuclear war…as the circumstances were then, could it not very easily continue to try and find a solution through simulation alone? And then, perhaps…say, in a few decades, try to replicate it once more? Of course the film doesn’t acknowledge this possibility as WOPR seems satisfied with the no-win scenario…for the time being, at least.
…I’m just saying, people. We’d better be happy it was dismantled after production. Or the prop for it, at least.
This film is great. The plot moves at a good pace for a thriller, it’s filled with tension, and it has a happy ending that I think everyone can enjoy. I could poke some more fun at the outdated technology used all around, particularly at NORAD with the giant Lite-Brite displays (though, apparently, the computers and other technology used in the film were actually more advanced in the era than the actual NORAD equipment) and some of the more now-archaic aspects.
There is also shameless product placement. In no less than one scene, they showed Pepsi, 7 Eleven, State Farm Insurance, and McDonalds (and people were complaining about that one scene in Man of Steel, sheesh…). The plugs for computers come relatively early and then don’t come up much again. No ads for Apple II’s or for the Sony Walkman. I could mock either of the aspects, but I don’t really feel a need to due to it really being such a small part of the film.
To put my thoughts into a misquote: "A great movie. The only winning move is to watch."
"WarGames" belongs to MGM and is available on Netflix Instant Play and everywhere movies are sold.