Wednesday, January 25, 2017

WarGames (1983)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

WARNING:   I'm going to give away details about the movie, including the ending.

I’m a big fan of Beloit’s mindset list.  In it, the college has things that professors should keep in mind as to incoming students.  It seems like back in the 1980s, things were pretty basic.  Computers were text only.  Being able to draw a line was pretty neat.  I’m at an age now where incoming freshmen were born after I graduated from high school.  This means that incoming freshmen have never know a world with the USSR or a without a unified Germany.  A movie like WarGames would probably warrant visiting Wikipedia to find out what all of these things were.  (Back in my day, you had to go to the library.)

The movie is about a kid named David.  He has a computer and a phone line.  (I’m assuming it’s a dedicated line.  Those of us old enough to remember dial-up remember people yelling, “I’m on the phone!”)  He wants to find out about the latest video games that a company is releasing, so he finds out which telephone prefixes are near the company’s headquarters and sets his computer to dialing.  He eventually gets a few good candidates.  One computer, which goes by Joshua, has a list of games…including Thermonuclear War.  Sounds interesting.  The problem is that he needs a password, which he eventually deduces.

He sets out playing Thermonuclear War as the Soviet Union, targeting cities like Las Vegas.  Joshua plays as the United States.  NORAD -- the actual North American Aerospace Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado, goes on alert when their new computerized system starts saying that the Soviets have launched their missiles.  You know it’s a simulation.  I know it’s a simulation.  David and the computer know it’s a simulation.  When David shows up at NORAD, he realizes that it might not be a simulation, after all.  The computer is putting up what appears to be actual real-time battle information.  Sure, the Soviet Union denies everything and there’s no actual visual confirmation of anything, but better safe than sorry.  DEFCON goes from 5 to 4, indicating that they’re a little worried.

Eventually, NORAD figures it out and brings David in for questioning.  Being the young genius he is, he escapes and finds the program’s creator, Stephen Falken.  Publicly, Falken is dead, but Joshua seems to think otherwise, even giving David an address where Falken receives checks.  It looks like Falken is the only one Joshua will respond to.  They get Falken to Joshua in time to have Falken stop everything, but a new problem arises: Joshua wants the actual launch code to the US missiles so that Joshua can launch the actual missiles.  Unfortunately, Joshua won’t listen to reason.  It takes a whole lot of tic tac toe to convince Joshua that war is futile.  When Joshua realizes that there can be no winner in war, he relents.

There is a very dated feel to the movie, and we’re not talking about just the computers.  As I mentioned, the map is a little different now than when I was in high school.  Those in high school now will probably need a history lesson to understand the dynamics.  The term “mutually assured destruction” comes up.  This was the understanding that both sides had the power to wipe the other side out, which is what leads to the inevitability of both sides losing.  Yes, America still has enemies, but this doesn’t really come up so much.  We’re not necessarily staring down an actual missile any more.

We also take computers for granted now.  Joshua was supposed to eliminate human error and delay when launching the missiles.  Joshua would follow the order to launch.  This was a much bigger deal back in the 80s when it was still possible to find a house without a desktop, three laptops, a tablet and a dozen or so cell phones in it.  On that note, I doubt it would have been that easy to hack into a military computer that easily.  For that matter, why bring David all the way to NORAD?  Wouldn’t it have been easier to question him where he was?

There is still a suspenseful feel to the movie.  No one knows whether or not to take the threat seriously.  If it were anything else, you could dismiss it, but no one wants to be the one to pass off an actual missile as fake.  Plus, just when you thought it was all over, Joshua makes other plans.  I’m curious to know how younger viewers will look at this movie, though.  I’m sure parents and grandparents will have a different take on it. 

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