Remember when personal computers scared the crap out of us? If you weren’t around in 1983, probably not. But the burgeoning PC revolution made a lot of folks nervous… which Hollywood was all too happy to parlay into a suitably ludicrous series of thrillers. Toss in some Cold War paranoia, add a bit of teen mischief, and hey, you’ve got yourself a vaguely memorable cultural icon!
Hence, WarGames: the film that put Matthew Broderick on the map and gave suburbanites an entirely unnecessary reason to gaze suspiciously at that weird box on their desk. Back in the day, it felt chilling in its possibilities. Today, it’s pretty quaint… which, of course only adds to its nostalgia factor. It posits a nice kid named David (Broderick) who's a genius at those newfound computer things. He hacks into what he thinks is a game company, but which actually turns out to be a NORAD defense computer. Through a rather far-fetched series of events, what he perceives as a bit of fun may actually herald the beginning of a nuclear war… unless he can find the defense computer’s reclusive designer, who can convince it to play tic-tac-toe until it expires of boredom.
I’m a little snarky here, but it’s not intended unkindly. Director John Badham assembles the various pieces remarkably well, and once you get past the innate goofiness of the scenario, WarGames become a pretty solid thriller. Broderick’s boyish charms work wonders when he’s playing an actual boy; he handles his character’s puckishness with the same aplomb as his growing horror at a prank spinning out of control.
The worst of it involves the government’s pursuit of David and the way he escapes their clutches. The kid-friendly approach jars with the Cold War elements, as well as the nascent paranoia that supposedly informs the film’s more serious elements. Badham struggles from time to time to reconcile the disparate tones, especially towards the end when he takes a full-bore leap into science fiction. WarGames also stumbles a bit in its messaging, which gets inordinately heavy handed towards the end.
Ultimately, the director makes it all work through plain old-fashioned storytelling. We care about David and his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy), and we want them to get to the bottom of it all. So we're willing to follow them no matter where they go. That, the doses of humor and the effective ticking clock help us skip past the goofier elements, and even embrace them as part of the fun. A lot of us experienced WarGames as our first real spy thriller, and while the adult in us can see its threadbare fundaments, the kid in us can revel in the “grown-up” entertainments it provides nonetheless.
And today, it marks an interesting pop-culture phenomenon, increasing its nostalgia factor considerably. Before the early 80s, computers were always the stuff of Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes. Suddenly, we could actually buy one and set it up in our homes. Even worse, those punk kids seems to innately understand it in ways the grown-ups couldn’t. We saw that reflected in films like this one and Electric Dreams: ridiculous perhaps, but with an eye on the real anxieties surrounding a profound social change. One year later, James Cameron put his finger on it with The Terminator, but for now, Hollywood worked hard at expressing our common unease. While The Terminator transcended that moment, WarGames became an indelible imprint of it. Memory makes the heart grow fonder, even when you’re blowing up the world. This one, thank God, provide as silly, sweet and undeniably fun as we remember.