Running time: 114 min.
Release date: June 3, 1983
WarGames comes during the peak of the Cold War, when the world was overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war. It was also the beginning of the home computer revolution. They were not just tools for the government and private sector anymore. So it's quite possible that kids like David Lightman existed in 1983; computer savvy and precocious all at once. We all know that is certainly the case today. So whereas the technology has certainly advanced in reality, the emotions and tension of WarGames still rises to the top to provide an entertaining film.
The movie begins with a surprise drill at a nuclear missile control center where the very human soldier is unwilling to launch the missiles. This prompts NORAD engineer John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) to propose the removal of the human element from the launch process, making for an automated process run by computers. McKittrick introduces the brass to WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a supercomputer that constantly runs simulations in order to learn. Meanwhile, in Seattle, we meet David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). He is a smart kid but disconnected from his parents and uninterested in school. He is also an expert hacker, and is able to change his grades from his home computer. His friend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), is at first repulsed by this idea, but then later takes in interest in David's hacking.
David learns of a toy company that will soon be releasing some computer games, so he figures out a way to dial every phone number in the company's area in order to hack into their system and play these games. He finds a number that does not identify itself and believes it is the toy company, but unbeknownst to him, he has dialed into WOPR. After doing some research and figuring out a backdoor password, David logs into the system and opts to play a friendly game of "Global Thermonuclear War" with the computer. This triggers a simulation that NORAD believes to be a real attack and sends them scrambling for answers when David disconnects from the system. After learning of the incident from the news, David panics and realizes what he got himself into. Unfortunately for him, WOPR (nicknamed "Joshua") calls him back and wants to continue the game. This puts the FBI on David's trail, as he is taken in on espionage charges.
What happens next is a series of implausible scenarios involving cracking door codes, and rigging pay phones and record travel times for someone who is just seventeen years old. David wades through some plot contrivances in order to find the creator of "Joshua", Stephen Falken (John Wood). Then he must convince the man to help, when he is obviously checked out and could care less, convinced that nature will rebuild if the world destroys itself. Predictably, Falken joins their cause and it's a race against time to make "Joshua" learn the difference between simulation and reality and stop the launching of nuclear missiles.
Director John Badham has put together a high-tension work that is buoyed by the performance of the young Broderick. John Wood starts off as a tired former computer engineer who then becomes highly intrigued in the performance of his creation. Dabney Coleman is also very good as McKittrick. Most of the adult characters in the film are nimrods who are constantly outwitted by a teenager, which is only plausible to a point. The stuff that doesn't work in this movie involved escape of David from the FBIs clutches. I'm unsure if anything David does in this movie can even be done in a logical manner, including undoing a telephone receiver in order to make a pay phone work without any money. There is also the fact that David and company go from Colorado to Oregon and back to Colorado in a matter of hours. The contrivances in the plot are many.
Even though a lot of the scenarios that occur in the last half of the film are mostly implausible, the performances of the cast and the tension provided by the plot are very well done and make for an entertaining film overall. You may watch this film and think "yeah, right" more than once but if you stop thinking about it and let it unfold, you will find an enjoyable experience.