Thursday, March 5, 2015

Film Friday: War Games (1983)

One of the best tests of a movie’s quality is how long audiences keep turning to it after its release. Some movies, like Star Wars have remained popular with the public for generations now. Others, like Highlander have found solid, though much smaller audiences. Others, like the putrid Avatar hit big but time has exposed them as nothing more than marketing over quality. War Games lies somewhere between Star Wars and Highlander. This was a highly popular film that continues to find a respectable audience today.

The Plot

War Games is an interesting mix of plots. The story opens with a tense moment where two Air Force missileers are ordered to launch their missiles and one of them refuses. This is discovered to be a widespread problem. To solve this, the Air Force pulls the men from the silos and entrusts the launch function to a computer, the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response).
A moment later, the film changes speeds. Now it becomes a John Hughes-like teen film about computer nerd Matthew Broderick, who is trying to woo cutie Ally Sheedy. He does this by showing her how he hacks computers and by changing a failing grade she got into a passing grade. He also shows off his computer skills by doing things like using his computer to book a first class plane ticket to Paris for her.

As Broderick plays around, he discovers a system with no identifying information. On this system, he finds, mixed in among other games like Chess and Checkers, a game called Global Thermonuclear War. He decides to play this game. He will soon find out, however, that he has hacked into a military computer and he swears off playing this game. Unfortunately, the military computer (Joshua) is determined to play this game to the end and it begins calling his house. It also begins running surprise simulated attacks which NORAD is unable to tell from the real thing.
Panic ensues.

Soon enough, the FBI discovers what Broderick has done and they come after Broderick. He is taken to NORAD, from which he must escape to find the creator of the computer program – Dr. Stephen Falken, to get his help to shut down Joshua. And thus, they race against the clock.

Why This Film Excels

War Games is an excellent film. The plot is interesting. The characters are likable and you pull for them. At no point do they act stupidly or irrationally just to make the story work. The action, which hardly rates with action-movie standards, is nevertheless quite engaging and nail biting. The dialog is clever. And the solution to the film is surprising, tense, unexpected and yet completely believable. This is also one of the few films to make a story that revolves around computers interesting, and it does so without turning the human-computer interface into an unrealistic videogame. What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the humanity. Oh the humanity!

What do I mean by the humanity? At its core, this is a film about our humanity. Think about it. The story takes place because some percentage of human missileers were incapable of pushing the button when the time came. Their humanity wouldn’t let them kill millions of people in a hopeless cause. So the Air Force replaced them with a machine that wouldn’t think twice about doing so, and that machine proved to lack the humanity needed to understand the difference between games and reality.
Matthew Broderick’s character initially seems content having only a computer for a friend, but he slowly learns that people matter more to him than machines. Dr. Falken has given up on life because of the death of his son, and he must regain his humanity if he is to save the human race from the uncaring machine he created.

Even the minor characters are deeply human. In the middle of this crisis, the Air Force guard finds time to flirt. The General too proves to be anything but a Hollywood stereotype. He trusts the judgment of men, not machines. He must put his faith in hope and trust the humanity of the Russians rather than mechanically responding to what appears to be a knock-out attack by the Russians, an amazingly difficult decision as he could well be costing the US the war. And the whole time, he displays the essence of humanity by telling biting jokes to alleviate the pressure, by abandoning rank and talking as a friend to try to comfort the soldiers he thinks are about to die, and by reaching out to God.
We can easily relate to each of these characters as they represent the parts of us where we understand right and wrong at a fundamental level, a level far deeper than logic or learning. Indeed, these people show their human side at its best at an almost instinctive level, the level where you just know what you need to do no matter how badly that conflicts with what you’ve been trained to do. And it is in their struggles with that conflict that we come to respect these people and to empathize with them. It makes us feel what they are feeling and thereby invest in them. This is rare in any film, much less a doomsday thriller.

Everything flows from this too. The jokes and levity in the film work because they arise from the conflict between the character’s duties and their humanity. The ominous aspects of the film are because we understand the danger of removing humanity from the equation, and the tension at the end is because we just aren’t sure that a computer can be taught to be human... even though that is the only solution. The ending even becomes surprisingly joyous, and the reason is that the ending is about redemption rather than victory, i.e. the computer must learn to be human, as must each of the characters who allowed this problem to develop. In their redemption, we find joy, much more than we ever would if they had just unplugged the computer.
I think there really is something important in this. Most doomsday films fall flat because they attempt to personalize the story by showing us what the characters will lose in the way of family and friends. Few give us characters who face genuine conflicts, even though it is in those conflicts where films produce the genuine feelings that make us care about the characters.

In fact, let me illustrate the difference by making this point. People cheer when cities get destroyed in most doomsday films, because those films are little more than special-effects laden films about cardboard characters no one cares about. Thus, the destruction of famous cities in those films is little more than a game to the audience... a joke.

But this film is different because people fall for the characters. Indeed, I think that is why this film remains popular (and very re-watchable) today even though the film is super dated, because you are watching for the people, not the plot. That’s also why the film remains tense even after you know how it will end, because you are feeling their tension rather than needing to build your own based on the plot. And because of this, this film differs from other doomsday films. If the director chose to show a city destroyed in this film, I doubt the audience would have cheered. They would instead have responded with revulsion because this film makes us feel a part of its world and connected to its people, and thus such an act would feel like the destruction of a real place.
All told, this film is a brilliant piece of writing that anyone interested in writing stories about doomsday-like challenges or stories involving computers (or other “dry” action stories) should study. This is how you make your audience care. In fact, I suspect that these characters could have faced any challenge from nuclear war to an alien invasion to a zombie plague and audiences still would have responded the same.



USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Wow, that is an outstanding review, Andrew!
When the film characters are human, engaging and likable, and the story actually makes sense, it makes films that are even technologically dated a pleasure to watch.
Add to that the very real fear many people have, including myself, that some people wanna have computers making critical human decisions, and that's icing on the cake.

IMO if one really thinks this through, computers making critical, human decisions is a recipe for disaster. Chaos theory and unintended consequences can be forseen when we think long and hard on this.
I'm not against computers being used as a tool, but we should never put computers in charge of tools that can kill millions of people.
In truth, I find the idea repulsive to the core of my being.

Not to mention that computers are programmed by imperfect humans thus computers can and will malfunction.
I can deal with PC program malfunctions, but computer weapon systems malfunctions are very bad.

I reckon films like War Games and Terminator doesn't help, LOL.
Of course, a lot of scifi and tech thrillers deal with humans creating technology that they can sometimes lose control of but the possibility exists and the warnings by our best thinkers and storytellers oughtta be heeded.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! I'm glad you liked it! :)

I agree about computers. I don't mind them as tools at all, but I don't want them making life and death decisions because they simply lack the ability to think outside of their programming and to realize that sometimes doing what you've been told is not the answer.

In terms of these films not helping, I think really that these films don't change minds so much as make you think about the things you already knew. I do believe that (most) people are good at sorting out the propaganda from the genuine points. And in this case, the points really are things that just feel wrong to people -- being put under the control of machines.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

You said it more precisely than I did, Andrew.
I agree, anyone who thinks this through already knows this and films like War Games intelligently show our potential humanity and how much we need it.
I strive to master my emotions and logic or reasoning rather than have it control me, internally or externally.
I think most people realize this even if they can't express it adequately.

Bravo zulu, Andrew for getting to the essence of humans, which this film does a good job of showing.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Also, didn't mean to imply these type of films aren't helping. I meant that in a jokingly yet seriously way. :)

Anonymous said...

Great review of a really good movie.

I loved this movie when I saw it as a kid and a young adult. I went to watch it a few years ago for a laugh thinking it must have really dated horribly due to it then being a nearly 30 year old movie about computers.

But I was surprised that even with the archaic technology I still really liked the movie for it's own sake. I never thought about why, but reading the review made it clear, the movie is not about technology but about people and a well made movie about people will not age.

Have you seen the direct to DVD sequel WarGames: The Dead Code? It is entirely forgettable and does everything wrong that the original did right, I only watched it for to see how bad it could get. I have no need to ever see it again.

I was watching an 80s movie with a 13yo friend of the family and half way through it he looked at me and said that the movie was dumb and why didn't the character just call for help on his mobile phone... I had to explain to him that mobiles didn't exist then and he would have to use a home or public phone which confused the hell out of it. So I would be curious to see his response to War Games..


ScottDS said...

Scott -

Sorry your friend didn't enjoy the 80s movie. There was an article published a couple days ago about a guy who showed his son and his son's friends Aliens for the first time... needless to say, it still worked, even if the kids insisted on talking throughout and compared all the hardware to stuff from videogames developed 20 years later!

Nice to know some movies still work. :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I haven't seen this film in a loooong time but I enjoyed it and I always keep it on when it's on TV. I just had a few random thoughts:

--The filmmakers would all go on to do similar things: writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes later wrote Sneakers and director John Badham would later direct Short Circuit

--Speaking of Short Circuit, I'm amazed how much Ally Sheedy seemed to age between this film (1983) and that one (1986)... I hope I'm not the only one who noticed!

--Martin Brest was hired to direct but was fired early on... he went off to do Beverly Hills Cop instead

--I just watched Colossus: The Forbin Project for the first time and this film and that one certainly share a common lineage (the film was okay, but not as chilling as I had been led to believe... I guess I had to be there)

--There's a fun, little reference to this film in the most recent Captain America flick where Black Widow is hacking into a computer and asks "Would you like to play a game"... and then she explains it to Cap who knows it already (he's catching up on his pop culture)

Oh, by the way, speaking of computers and hacking, CSI: Cyber premiered the other night. After reading this review, I'm just waiting for the inevitable YouTube montage featuring all the ways they misrepresent/dumb down computing! And you know they're gonna do a War Games-style plot eventually.

Critch said...

I spent 4 years building the MIRV warheads for those Minuteman Missiles and I have to concur with your review. I experienced some tense moments, especially during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Our air division commander, a brigadier, was down in the bomb dump with us and it was apparent very quickly why he was a general. He knew what we all were thinking but he was everywhere joking, making coffee (I personally found that hilarious) and just being a leader. The movie BTW got a lot of things right, especially the sequences needed to launch, the only thing not mentioned was that the Pentagon can override a single missile squadrons refusal to launch. Colossus: The Forbin Project was a really good, gritty movie, very well done. BTW, I trust people over machines.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! I agree. Films that show our humanity tend to be the ones that stick with us. And don't worry, I got that your comment was tongue in cheek! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Scott! In some ways, I'm amazed at how easy it is to watch this film without it feeling dated, especially with all the ancient computer hardware they show. But ultimately, I think the story itself is timeless. I think it also helps that they don't do anything incredible with the computers, i.e. things we know weren't possible.

Cell phone have completely changed the landscape of movies in so many ways!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Some films from the era still look great, especially the Alien franchise. Others feel rather dated.

I enjoyed Colossus a lot. But keep in mind that it is very much a 1960s movie, so it will have limits in terms of what they will do and show.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. ScottAU, I did see the sequel to War Games and I hated it. They did everything wrong and the movie was just annoying to me.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, That is one job I would not want. I'm glad other people do! I can imagine that you had some tense times. That must be a horrible feeling to think that WWIII could be starting.

I actually met some missileers a few years ago and I was amazed at how "normal" they were. They reminded me of librarians... calm, quiet, unassuming.

Obviously, I can't attest to the accuracy of the film, but I get the sense that it's fairly accurate and I think that enhances the film further -- nothing about the film feels fake to me.

Good movie.

Koshcat said...

Great review. I always liked the movie but thought some of it was nostalgia but it was more than that and you put it well into words. The other thing about the movie was there isn't a true villain. The tension is in the problem not in some person's evil (and often illogical) plan. When this movie came out it seemed unrealistic. No way could computers call you or control whole networks. Now it not only doesn't seem far fetched but we also experience some of it.

BevfromNYC said...

Great review! What you did not mention is that this movie was made at the dawn of the personal computer. There was (and still is) a debate about how much work we should give over to machines and why. This was a perfect illustration of that humanity point and might I add "instinct" too. It is still unknown whether we can really teach a computer to be compassionate (SIRI being the exception, of course).

Koshcat said...

Bev, did you know you can change your SIRI voice to British male? It will make you think you have a Downton Abby butler in your pocket.

BevfromNYC said...

Koshcat - I had the Droid version for while, but I asked it so many stupid questions that it actually got mad at me!

Dave Olson said...

Koshcat, ask Siri what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. You know you want to.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Is that an African swallow or a European swallow? ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Bev! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

I concur. The idea of how much we should trust to computers is definitely not something that has been settled. Not only are there questions about how far we can trust them to serve us rather than try to compete with us, and what they are actually capable of, but the more we computerize, the more jobs that vanish. And there comes a point where too much computerization can do real harm to the public.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Koshcat!

I've become a big fan of the idea of not using a villain in films. Everything today has a villain, but when you start looking at the great films of the past, few did. I think that when you avoid using a villain, you end up being forced to delve deeper into the characters to find conflict, and that makes for a better film.

Petals said...

"Turn your key, Sir!"
Totally agree! WarGames is one 80s flick that I will inevitably watch anytime I surf near it. {Road House, Trading Places, any Hughes film, too}

Kit said...

I saw it a when I was in High School. I thought it a slam against Reagan. Of course, I was a bit of an idiot then (as everyone is when they are a teenager) so…

AndrewPrice said...

Petals, Welcome! I'm glad you like the site.

I always watch Wargames too, and the others you mention! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I think it never felt like a Reagan slam to me because they never actually show the President, he seems to be quite reasonable, and the general in charge is a very likeable character who isn't bloodthirsty or crazy.

In one interesting irony, by the way, notice that the film argues that MAD is insane. This was typical of liberals at the time. Today, they have flipped positions and argue that attempts to interfere with MAD are insane. Interesting world, isn't it?

Kit said...

"In one interesting irony, by the way, notice that the film argues that MAD is insane. This was typical of liberals at the time. Today, they have flipped positions and argue that attempts to interfere with MAD are insane. Interesting world, isn't it?"

It is interesting. Of course, Reagan more or less disproved the inevitability of MAD with SDI, so there is that.

AndrewPrice said...

SDI is what got them to change their minds about MAD. Look back all the way to Dr. Strangelove through War Games and you will see the liberals whining about the madness of MAD... often referencing the acronym itself.

Then Reagan proposed SDI and the liberal attack became that he's wasting money because SDI can't work: "You just can't hit a bullet with a bullet." Then, when the missile systems started to prove themselves, they became huge fans of MAD as "this is what we used to guarantee peace!"

Post a Comment