There’s something about movies from the 1980s that I find reassuring. At some point in the last 25 years people stopped wanting, or studios stopped providing, movies featuring kids that look, sound, and act like real people. I suppose this can be traced back to the heyday of Macaulay Culkin, when it was no longer enough for kids to be smart, funny, or endearing in the way that kids can be in real life, but instead needed to outsmart the villains, mug for the camera, and provide a running dialog of snark along the way. By the same token, it is no longer enough for Winnie Cooper to be the Platonic ideal of a grade school/high school beauty, now we have a 21-year-old Megan Fox playing a high school student. WarGames, set contemporary to its 1983 production year, predates this trend, and provides a realism that seems both odd and relieving in contrast, like having a bowl of soup after a week of gorging on Halloween candy.
Matthew Broderick as David Lightman and Ally Sheedy as Jennifer Mack both play their ages and fit their roles here, Broderick as the anti-social computer geek and Sheedy as the girl that finds his antics either endearing or intriguing, or both. This is Broderick pre-Ferris Bueller–he’s not the know-it-all here, he’s just a smart kid with clueless parents and an inability to fit into the norms of society. It’s this realism that carries through the movie that allows it to hold your interest.
The movie begins with Lightman being sent to the principal’s office for acting up in class. In a nod to social engineering it’s made obvious that Lightman wanted to be sent to the principal’s office in order to steal the password of the computer system, found on a note card next to the terminal in the office. He uses this password later, after getting a ride home on Mack’s moped, to dial into the school’s computer and change both their grades. This is one of many times that the movie uses realistic hacker tactics rather than having the actor dance in front of a green screen like a trained monkey, and then inserting fake whizbang graphics in postproduction (Swordfish anyone?). Later in the movie, after he reads up on a new game being made by a company in Sunnyvale, CA, he uses a script to have his modem dial every number with a Sunnyvale area code and prefix, looking for a computer system to log in to. This scene was realistic enough that it led to that particular method of hackery being referred to as “wardialing.” Whether or not all the methods he employs are accurate is not the point–for instance I don’t know enough about phone phreaking to know if what he does with the payphone mouthpiece works. The point is that his methods are plausible without being farfetched. He’s not hacking any Gibsons here.
The actual plot of the movie is entertaining enough, but to describe it in any detail would be to give away all of its secrets. I suppose its Sixth Sense expiration date has already passed, but I won’t be the one to give any of the plot away (though interestingly enough, it was pointed out to me that the DVD menus actually give away the ending of the movie). I will say that some of the best segments of the movie had nothing at all to do with the main plot, but instead were those scenes that focused on the interaction between Lightman and Mack. The way that Lightman shows off for this girl, and in the process of doing so almost starts World War III, is particularly well handled.
I was surprised to find, in researching this movie before watching it, that it was nominated for Academy Awards in both cinematography and screenplay. The screenplay seems dated at this point, having seen so many movies that borrow heavily from its MacGuffins, but the cinematography still looks top knotch. In particular, the method of shooting the computer terminal so that you can see both the text as well as the reflection (and as a result, the reaction) of the hacker in the screen was a nice touch.
Overall, this is not a movie that belongs on any “100 greatest” lists, unless you’re talking about a “100 Greatest Computer Movies” list, at which point you start running out of titles after Office Space and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is, however, a movie that holds up well enough, and is enjoyable for what it is: a time capsule of what summer movies used to be, and no longer are.
Tags: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 3-star, Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, Danica McKellar, Ferris Bueller, Hackers, MacGuffin, Matthew Broderick, Michael Madsen, Office Space, Reservoir Dogs, Sixth Sense, Swordfish, The Rock, WarGames, Womack