a critiQal film review WarGames (1983)

Plot: Computer hacker David Lightman (Broderick) can bypass the most advanced security systems, break the most intricate secret codes and master even the most difficult computer games. But when he unwittingly taps into the Defense Department's war computer, he initiates a confrontation of global proportions...World War III! Together with his girlfriend (Sheedy) and a wizardly computer genius (Wood), David must race against time to outwit his opponent...and prevent a nuclear Armageddon.

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After recently reading the book that Ready Player One (2018) is based on (in preparation for seeing the movie), I suddenly had a newfound interest in WarGames, the Matthew Broderick sci-fi thriller of the 80’s. So when I got a chance to watch it (after more than 20 years since my last viewing), I jumped at the chance.

But has nostalgia made WarGames better in my head? Or has the outdated technology and cheesy fun of the 80’s managed to remain relevant in spite of itself?

In the 80’s, it seemed like Matthew Broderick could do no wrong. He hit it big with films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Glory (1989) and Biloxi Blues…and of course, WarGames. Like his character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), in WarGames he plays an intelligent kid who isn’t applying himself to the normal stuff (like school). Instead, he becomes a bit obsessed with trying to hack into a game designer’s computers in order to play their upcoming game. Instead, he gets himself into trouble by hacking a Department of Defense computer and playing a war game.

While he’s not as engaging as he was as the popular slacker in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), his turn in WarGames isn’t half bad. He’s believable enough as the hacker guy, and even does a bit of geeking out over computer stuff, much to his gal pal’s chagrin. He’s got that same likeability on-screen, even if he does seem a bit out of his depth in the film.

Ally Sheedy, as Broderick’s gal pal, is a bit of a different role for the actress. In her more popular films, like Short Circuit and The Breakfast Club (1985), she plays a bit of an oddball. In WarGames, she’s the normal one of the bunch, and just happens to be friends with the geely oddball. It’s interesting, as there are times in the film when it seems obvious she’s yearning for a bit of that oddity, but instead she’s just relegated to the typical gal role in the film. The one where she kind of fades into the background, except when she’s screaming helplessly during danger.

Dabney Coleman, who most 80’s fans while remember from his role in Cloak & Dagger (not to be confused with the Marvel comic book characters of the same name), is a bit ill-used as well in WarGames. Instead of the surprisingly fun acting in that other film, here he’s relegated to the superior who doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. They turn him into kind of a bumbling, hair-pulling idiot, and his role could have easily been left on the cutting room floor without really affecting the film.

The story of WarGames itself is surprisingly decent for an 80’s summer flick. Sure, the computer hacking is a bit glossed over, but unlike lots of other computer hacking films (Hackers (1995) is one that pops immediately to mind), WarGames doesn’t replace the computer code with fancy graphics. Instead, the hacking looks pretty straightforward, and fans in the 80’s probably thought it was really that easy to hack into other computers. It’s a nice change of pace from the typical hacking film, especially since the hero isn’t anti-establishment at all. It seems he’s just doing it for fun, not for some hidden “fight the power” agenda.

And that really helps WarGames. Despite it’s dire warnings of imminent thermonuclear war, the film manages to stay light enough to be enjoyable for the entire family. Lots of 80’s films took this route, and it’s really hard to come by these days. After the phenomenal success of grittier films like THE DARK KNIGHT, that lighthearted feel (let’s call it “movie fluff”) that lets the viewer just sick back and have fun with the film seems to be a thing of the past. Even comedies these days can’t really recapture the feel that so many 80’s movies were able to so easily. Maybe it’s that “movie fluff” – showcasing a glimpse at a simpler time – is why the 80’s have become such a nostalgic phenomenon.

With that “movie fluff” keeping a film that’s got extremely dire circumstances (they ARE on the brink of nuclear Armageddon after all), WarGames turns what could be a frightening situation into a film the whole family could probably enjoy. While it might be a bit too advanced (thought-wise) for the young ones, teens and adults should still enjoy Matthew Broderick (with gal pal Ally Sheedy at his side) playing games with a supercomputer – although the teens may be too busy laughing themselves silly over the outdated electronics to really enjoy it.

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