If you thought Tom Cruise nearly started a war in Top Gun, you should see what Matthew Broderick did three years earlier in Wargames!
In Wargames, Broderick plays David Lighter, a dorky but likable teenager who loves to play video games and who spends his spare time hacking into other computer systems. (Of course, since this movie was made in 1983, all the computers are these gigantic, boxy monstrosities.) Sometimes, he puts his skills to good use. For instance, when both he and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) are running the risk of failing their biology class, he hacks into the school and changes their grades. (At first, Jennifer demands that he change her grade back but then, a day later, she asks him to change it again. It’s kind of a sweet moment and it’s also probably the way I would have reacted if someone had done that for me in high school.) Sometime, David’s skills get him into trouble. For instance, he nearly destroys the world.
Now, keep in mind, David really didn’t know what he was doing. He was just looking for games to play online. He didn’t realize that he had hacked into NORAD and that Global Thermonuclear War was actually a program set up to allow a gigantic computer named WOPR to figure out how to properly wage a thermonuclear war. David also doesn’t know that, because humans have proven themselves to be too hesitant to launch nuclear missiles, WOPR has, more or less, been given complete control over America’s nuclear arsenal.
(Wargames actually starts out with a chilling little mini-movie, in which John Spencer and Michael Madsen play two missile technicians who go from joking around to pulling guns on each other during a drill. Of course, Madsen’s the one ready to destroy the world.)
Of course, the military folks at NORAD freak out when it suddenly appears as if the Russians have launched a nuclear strike against Las Vegas and Seattle. (Not Vegas! Though really, who could blame anyone for wanting to nuke Seattle?) In fact, the only thing that prevents them from launching a retaliatory strike is David’s father demanding that David turn off his computer and take out the trash. However, WOPR is determined to play through its simulation, which pushes the world closer and closer to war. (One of the more clever — and disturbing — aspects of the film is that, even after the military learns that the Russians aren’t planning the attack them, they still can’t go off alert because the Russians themselves are now on alert. Once the war starts, it can’t be stopped even if everyone knows that the whole thing was the result of a mistake.)
With the FBI looking for him, David tries to track down the man who created WOPR, Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood). However, Falken is not easy to find and not as enthusiastic about saving the world as one might hope….
Watching Wargames was an interesting experience. On the one hand, it’s definitely a dated film. (Again, just look at the computers.) At the same time, its story still feels relevant. In Wargames, the problem really isn’t that WOPR wants to play a game. It’s that men like Dr. John McKittrick (well-played by Dabney Coleman) have attempted to remove the human element and have instead put all of their faith in machines. The appeal of a machine like WOPR is that it has no self-doubt and does whatever needs to be done without worrying about the cost. But that’s also the reason why human beings are necessary because the world cannot be run on just algorithms and cold logic. That’s a theme that’s probably even more relevant today than it was in 1983.
Wargames is also an exceptionally likable film. In fact, it’s probably about as likable as any film about nuclear war could be. On the one hand, you’ve got everyone at NORAD panicking about incoming missiles and then, on the other hand, you’ve got David and Jennifer having fun on his computer and trading flirty and silly quips. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are both likable in the two main roles. Broderick brings a lot of vulnerability to the role of David. (David Lightner is a far more believable teenager than Ferris Bueller.) He handles the comedic scenes well but he’s even better as David grows increasingly desperate in his attempts to get the stubborn adults around him to actually listen to what he has to say. When it appears the only way to save the world is to swim across a bay, David is forced to admit that he’s never learned how to swim because he always figured there would be time in the future. Yes, it’s a funny scene but the way Broderick delivers the line, you understand that David has finally figured out that there’s probably not going to be a future. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to swim. It’s that he’ll never get the chance to learn or do anything else for that matter.
Wargames is definitely a film of its time but its themes are universal enough that it’s a film of our time as well.