19 March 2011

The only winning move is not to play

Back in 1983, when I was in my last year of primary school in Auckland, my mother took me to the cinema to see the new Matthew Broderick drama-thriller, WarGames. It was an exciting film for a ten-year-old, and at the time I came away with a lasting impression of having enjoyed it. I went on to read the novelisation, which I still have somewhere in one of my many boxes in storage. I've never been much of a movie renter though, so when WarGames popped up again on this week's TV listings it had been over a quarter of a century since I'd seen it, and I jumped at the chance to take a second look at one of the 1980s' most influential and successful teen adventure movies.

Part of the attraction for most of WarGames' target audience was the pairing of rising stars Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy as the youthful protagonists thrown into a Cold War doomsday scenario due to the twisted digital logic of an all-powerful defence computer. Both are ideal 1980s teen stars in this film (although to be strictly accurate, neither were teenagers at the time - they were 21 and 20 years old). Broderick is clean-cut and handsome (the script calls for him to bare his snowy-white chest, to keep the girls' attention) and resourceful, while Sheedy is zesty (Look!  She rides a moped!), has a great girl-next-door smile and frankly legendary eyebrows.

It was both Broderick and Sheedy's second film, and the successful reception of their performances and the film as a whole helped to cement their status in even more popular roles in the coming years.  Broderick's next film saw him play Gaston the thief in the under-rated Ladyhawke, and his career-defining role as Ferris Bueller came the year after that. And within two years of WarGames, Sheedy was at the peak of her career, having appeared in the archetypal '80s classics, The Breakfast Club and St Elmo's Fire. Director John Badham, who had helmed Saturday Night Fever (!) and went on to direct the Sheedy-starring Short Circuit, played an important role too by injecting a playful edge to proceedings, ensuring that a potentially grim and serious subject matter could be handled without depressing the audience.

Most of this was probably over my head at the time. I was mainly interested in WarGames' science and computing angle. A lot has been said about the influence of the recently remade Tron both on popular culture and on public impressions of what computing was capable of. (This despite the fact that few of the impressive effects in the original Tron were actually computer-generated - all that blue glow was hand-tinted the old-fashioned way). But I would argue that WarGames, for its real-world setting, its use of then little-known innovations in computer espionage and subterfuge, and its compelling theme of the dangers of an utterly implacable computer brain that endangers human life through its ruthless machine code logic, is more influential than Tron. Indeed, perhaps WarGames even approaches the same league as 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of its contribution to the public image of artificial intelligence, although this might seem a bit of a stretch given that WarGames isn't a classic like 2001.

WarGames was a major financial success for MGM. Its $12 million budget was easily eclipsed by US box office returns of $79.5 million and US video rentals of $38.5 million. The film also achieved mainstream recognition, garnering three Oscar nominations including a coveted and perhaps a little surprising Best Screenplay nomination. (Writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes lost out to Horton Foote's largely forgotten Tender Mercies, but then so did the writers of The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, and Silkwood.  Way to go Academy! Parkes at least had the consolation of going on to become a major film  producer - Men In Black, Gladiator, and Minority Report are among his 44 production credits).

The central premise: that the clean-cut everyboy David Lightman's petty hacking in search of a hot new computer game sets off a chain of events nearly leading to global thermonuclear war, which Lightman then averts heroically. Sure, it's corny, and perhaps it's a little hard to identify with a 1980s teenager who has his own en suite bathroom, but with a ten-year-old's powerful suspension of disbelief the mechanics of the film were undeniably exciting. It's also a clever script, which shows off Lasker and Parkes' ability to adopt little-known cutting edge computer innovations and bring them to mainstream attention. Computer hacking and the even less known skill of phone 'phreaking' were central plot devices, and the impact of portraying these as hobbies of the seemingly clean-cut middle class kid Lightman must have been significant in helping to popularise computing amongst young viewers.    

The script also makes artful fun from the prevailing Cold War ethos of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which caused a generation of '80s children numerous sleepless nights. Particularly on the nights before birthdays and Christmas, if you were anything like me. The nervy tension of the nuclear deterrence stand-off between the US and the USSR was backed up by thousands of nuclear warheads, and the potential yields of these devices was clearly capable of destroying all life on Earth, or at the very least knocking what remained of humanity back into a grim new Stone Age. Playing on these fears by introducing the reclusive character of Dr Stephen Falken, the scientist who created the super computer that holds America's nuclear arsenal to ransom, the writers offer up the delightful prospect of a character in a successful mainstream movie offering up scenes like this:

Falken: Extinction is part of the natural order.
David: Bullshit! If we're extinguished there's nothing natural about that - it's just stupid!
Falken: Oh it's alright, I've planned ahead. We're just three miles from a primary target. A millisecond of brilliant light and we're vaporised. Much more fortunate than the millions who will wander sightless through the smouldering aftermath. We'll be spared the horror of survival.

The movie had been in the works for several years before it was made and apparently John Lennon was interested in playing the role of Falken at the very early stages of production. (Incidentally, John Wood, who played Falken, joined Broderick in Ladyhawke, as the villainous Bishop of Aquila).

WarGames toys with the very real threat offered by the split second decision making of nuclear warfare: when missiles are flying and due to impact in a matter of minutes, human decision-making could hardly be anything other than highly compromised, particularly when made with inaccurate information. It's an entirely plausible premise that Falken's computer, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) is given control over the US nuclear arsenal when human launch trials were shown to have major flaws - after all, who wouldn't hesitate at the prospect of accidentally killing tens of millions of people?

These are all fairly high-level concepts for a mainstream movie. Certainly, WarGames is a fantasy and should not be treated as any sort of masterpiece. But it was successful at the box office, featured likeable performances from its lead actors, had a distinctive and appealing visual style - particularly in the NORAD control room scenes, with its distinctive high-tech ray-traced graphics, and ultimately delivered an effective yarn in an appealingly professional package.

And for proof of the impact WarGames made on popular culture, one should look no further than two points made in this Wired feature from July 2008, which celebrates the film's 25th anniversary. The impressive set built to replicate the NORAD control room impressed the actual NORAD staffers, who realised that their actual facilities paled in comparison to the movie portrayal:

William Lord, Commander, Air Force Cyberspace Command: It was a great movie! A few years later, I was an executive officer with the Air Force Space Command stationed at Norad near Cheyenne Mountain. And I'm wondering, "Gee, where can we get such cool-looking displays?" It was a good forcing function. It required us to all of a sudden say, "If it really can look like this, why doesn't it?"

And aesthetics aside, the film also attracted immediate attention at the highest levels of the American government, which is no great surprise given President Reagan's show-business background:

When the WOPR spoke the movie's penultimate line ("A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?"), audiences, unnerved by years of US-Soviet nuclear brinkmanship, spontaneously applauded. And Ronald Reagan did not find the WOPR crazy or silly when he saw the movie at a special Camp David screening during its opening weekend. 
Lasker: I arranged that screening. Reagan was a family friend. My parents were in the movie business, and I grew up in Brentwood. We had Saturday night parties, and much the same people came. The Reagans — you could set your watch by them. At 7 o'clock, there they would be — ding-dong! 
Days after the screening, wrote Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, Reagan held a closed-door briefing with some moderate members of Congress, wherein he sidetracked discussion of the MX ballistic missile program by bringing up WarGames. Had any of them seen the film? he asked, then launched into an animated account of the plot. "Don't tell the ending," cautioned one of the lawmakers.

There you have it - not only did WarGames do well at the box-office and influence popular culture, it also had an immediate impact on the political leaders in charge of the US nuclear deterrent!

Finally, for those still hankering for another glimpse of those eerie MIRV traces bearing down on Las Vegas, Vladivostok and Cincinnati, the 2006 budget PC game DEFCON is definitely worth investigating. It replicates the visual style of the NORAD control screens perfectly, throws in tense gameplay and a perversely satisfying thrill in chucking nuclear missiles around. Plus it offers the salutary reminder that in a nuclear war in which one's own cities are reduced to Fallout-style rubble, victory is a highly elusive concept.

DEFCON screenshot
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