Looking back on my formative years, several theatrical releases stand out above all others, films such as the Star Wars trilogy (of course), E.T., Grease, and - yes - Wargames. Back in 1983, this film was incredible. Home computers were still mysterious contraptions I knew little about (I doubt I even had my Commodore 64 yet), and here was a guy hacking into other computers to change his grades, play cool new games, and who knew what else. And if that weren't enough, his computer actually talked. Looking back now, I have to wonder how many hackers became hackers because of Wargames. I know the film produced plenty of kids just like me who suddenly wanted a computer more than anything else in the world. Younger generations might not appreciate Wargames as much as I do - many will never have seen an old school computer room, computer tapes, an external modem that actually holds the phone receiver, gigantic floppy disks, or even an old-timey command prompt, nor will they know what it was like to grow up in the shadow of a possible full-scale nuclear was between America and the Evil Empire - but I have to believe they will enjoy this film nonetheless. It had been many years since I last watched Wargames, and I'm actually a little surprised at how well the film holds up all these years later.
In the event of a first strike nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, response time is of the essence if you want to live up to your end of the mutually assured destruction bargain, so it makes sense to let a computer handle as much of the response action as possible - especially when that computer is the W.O.P.R. (War Operation Plan Response). After all, the W.O.P.R. spends all of its time calculating different nuclear war scenarios, and - more importantly - it does not fall subject to the fallibility of human beings, the kind of unpredictability that sees 22% of nuclear launch commanders failing to release their birds during the most realistic of tests. Unfortunately, the W.O.P.R. has a secret backdoor that no one knows about - until, that is, a geeky teenager manages to get in through that backdoor. While trying to hack into a software company's computers to sneak a peek at their upcoming games, David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) manages to gain entry into a much more interesting game server. He and would-be girlfriend Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy) get a kick out of targeting American cities for destruction in a game of Global Thermonuclear War, having no idea that the folks at NORAD are staining their shorts over reports of incoming missiles from the Soviet Union - not until the three-minute scare makes the news the next day. When the W.O.P.R. actually calls back, David realizes that the game he started is still running - and that it is much more than just a game.
There's plenty of excitement and suspense as the wargame races toward an end-game scenario which could well result in the very real deaths of hundreds of millions of people. It's going to take more than a kid to convince the brass at NORAD that the incoming missiles they see on all of their screens are actually illusory, especially when that kid is suspected of treasonous espionage. Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and Dabney Coleman turn in excellent performances, but my props have to go to Barry Corbin, whose character, the eminently quotable General Jack Beringer, gets all the best lines, such as "I'd piss on a spark plug if I thought it'd do any good!" and "after very careful consideration, sir, I've come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks."
Man, I love the 80s - and Wargames is one of the true classics from that greatest of decades.