Arthur C. Clarke posited that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Looking at the state of computer gaming now, with motion capture systems like the Wii and the Kinect, three-dimensional graphics with blood-spattering realism, and the phenomenon of online role playing games like World of Warcraft – where entire alternate lives are experienced within cyberspace – it’s hard not to imagine that the characters in 1983’s WarGames would make that assumption were they somehow able to glimpse the games of 2012. Good science fiction has always assumed that we would reach these points, that our technology would eventually outpace imagination. No doubt Apple is working on the iHolodeck as we speak. The best science fiction though has recognized that despite the trappings of future technology, the ideas at its core must remain timeless. Which is why you can watch a nearly 30-year old movie like WarGames, with its goofy costumes and haircuts and floppy disks the size of pizza boxes, compare its conclusions to history unfolding before you and appreciate its lasting relevance.
I suspect there’s little need to recap the film’s plot at length: Underachiever (and spiritual godfather of Lulzsec and Anonymous) David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) unwittingly hacks into the United States’ computerized defense system (the WOPR) and engages it in a simulated game of Global Thermonuclear War. The computer decides to play the game for real, never having learned, as its creator Professor Stephen Falken (John Wood) opines, the concept of futility. The WOPR is another entry in the long list of troublesome movie computers, like 2001‘s HAL 9000, Tron‘s Master Control Program or Terminator‘s Skynet. Yet especially unlike the latter, WOPR is not acting out of any sense of malevolence – it is a child, innocently smearing house paint all over a priceless work of art, not recognizing that it is damaging something valuable. In terms of story structure this is an interesting dilemma – there is basically no antagonist in the movie, no bad guy to be defeated. Rather, the goal is one of establishing an understanding – an awareness of how suicidally stupid the “game” of nuclear brinksmanship is. Issues of intent, ideology, the worth of communism versus capitalism or ordinary prejudice are removed from the equation completely; in a world of nuance, this is the simplest, most black-and-white question there can be. Consequently, the many characters populating the movie remain, for the most part, archetypes and relatively undeveloped ciphers. We don’t get a real sense of why David is a computer-obsessed loner, why Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) wants to hang around with him, why McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) is so driven to prove that the WOPR can usurp the human’s place in the war response decision-making chain. The question at the heart of the movie is more important, and the characters are servants to finding the answer. And the writing, direction and editing are handled so well that even watching the movie for the tenth time you are still clenching up as WOPR hacks the nuclear launch codes, wondering if it will figure out what it needs to know in time to save the world.
It’s unfortunate that a movie like this still holds so much meaning; one would like to imagine that humanity has outgrown the hormonal foolishness that from Hiroshima onwards kept the infamous doomsday clock so close to midnight. Fear of utter annihilation should not be what keeps us safe in our beds, and yet in many ways we are still like lemurs huddled together in a cave, afraid that the wolves are going to come and take us in the night. The Soviet Union may be long gone, but the primitive paranoid braintrust that fueled the Cold War is still alive and well; somehow brandishing guns and bombs and strutting about like armed peacocks, boasting about superiority and threatening to metaphorically bitch slap anyone who disagrees is what passes for diplomatic skill in this age. We read stories about North Korea’s long-range rockets, Iran’s nuclear program and the looming spectre of a potential bombing campaign and think Jesus – why have human beings, who are ostensibly more capable of learning than any machine, not grasped the lesson learned by the WOPR, and WarGames’ timeless message: “The only winning move is not to play”?