After an exercise to test the capability of the staff who man the nuclear missile silos shows an unacceptable percentage of them refuse to launch their bombs, it is decided to put a supercomputer, W.O.P.R., in charge. But little do the military know that their computer has been hacked by teenage David (Matthew Broderick), an ordinary kid with a flair for the technological who is looking for games, and that he has set in motion a simulation of World War Three - with potentially devastating results.
Ah, Wargames. "Shall we play a game?" "Defcon One." "I'd piss on a sparkplug if I thought it would do any good!" "This corn is raw!" This science fiction thriller on the then-topical (and sadly still-topical) subject of nuclear war was written and extensively researched by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes and certainly caught the imagination at the time. On TV we had Threads or The Day After to bring home the reality of living under the threat of the Bomb, but for big screen entertainment, aside from the more fantastical sci-fi that employed the shadow of the Cold War's atomic fears, it's easy to forget how effective and suspenseful this film is.
The eighties love affair with computers is prominent, with David being a misfit kid who uses his computer to change school grades or even book flight reservations, though crucially he was a point of identification for the younger members of the audience, as if they could learn how to use the technology in the same way he did. Director John Badham made sure to lend every character, down to the bit parts, a distinctive personality to set us apart from the technology, as naturally the eighties love/hate suspicion of computers reared its head, and Joshua (W.O.P.R.'s alias, named after its creator's deceased child) gets out of control pretty quickly after it gets into the game - or is it a game at all? One sobering moment sees the Joshua ask, "What's the difference?"
It's all about responsibility; the obligation of parents to take care of their offspring - Joshua's creator Professor Falken (John Wood) has retreated from the world and not only believes mankind is heading for extinction but sees this as a perfectly natural progression in the cycle of nature, a defeatist point of view David and his new girlfriend and partner in adventure Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) cannot understand; when they realise they might not reach adulthood, it struck a chord in all who saw this. Falken, like all the adults in the film, needs to look after the younger generation by ensuring that there's a future for them to live in. This includes making their own decisions about major events, and not relying on technology to do their thinking for them, whether it is computers or weapons of mass destruction - the film hopes dearly that the decision will be not to play that game at all.
Solid acting and some excellent set design, notably in the NORAD control room, gave this an authenticity that other nuclear thrillers using the threat of the Bomb failed to bring the same gravity too, it's no fashionable gimmick here. Broderick is especially believable as an ingenious kid in over his head - he's great at reacting, too. The last fifteen minutes are incredibly tense, considering what we are (or aren't) witnessing on screen, and there's a simple, idealistic message at the end to make you nod sagely in agreement. At the time, WarGames was surprisingly influential, not solely regarding the sense of waging nuclear war, but about the dangers hacking brought to this brave new world of technology - there cannot have been a kid on the planet who saw this and either worried for their future or wondered what they could do with that home computer dad had brought back ostensibly to do his account on. A quick mention of my favourite bit: the tour guide playing his trick, which he's probably done about a thousand times before, but he still laughs enthusiastically! Music by Arthur B. Rubenstein.