By Pete Vonder Haar | October 2, 2003

“I loved it when you nuked Las Vegas.”
Before “The Net,” or “Hackers,” or the affront to all that is holy I like to call Swordfish, there was “WarGames.” This early computer-themed thriller introduced mainstream American audiences to such previously obscure topics as phreaking, cracking, and games based on atomic annihilation. It also endeavored to scare the living bejeezus out of us by suggesting that any high school malcontent with a 1200 baud modem could break into our country’s defense grid and easily unleash a nuclear holocaust. Yee-ha.

Not that many of us needed encouragement to gnash our teeth over the impending U.S.-U.S.S.R. dust-up. “WarGames” may not have featured any explicit “what-if’ footage involving H-bombs going off over Cleveland, but there were plenty of movies during that period that were doing fine on their own (I forwarded medical bills for my first ulcer to the makers of “The Day After” and “Testament”). “WarGames” didn’t need to show the firestorm, or the effects of radiation sickness (your hair, like, totally falls out), it just had to imply that all those grotesque horrors could be instigated by some hormonal adolescent with too much time on his hands – yet another reason why all teenagers should be made to work at menial service jobs.

So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear: a time when the American version of Godzilla was merely a bad precognitive dream to Matthew Broderick; before Ally Sheedy committed professional seppuku by appearing in no less than three (!) movies with Judd Nelson; and when Dabney Coleman still had something resembling a career. Sherman, set the Way-Back Machine for 1983.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”
“WarGames” opens with a chilling scene in which two airmen, Jerry (John Spencer – “The West Wing’s” Leo McGarry) and Steve (Michael Madsen – Mr. Blonde from “Reservoir Dogs”), demonstrate the obvious folly of allowing mere human beings to push The Button in our nuclear missile silos. After Jerry muffs a launch drill – thanks to his pathetic aversion to killing people – the bigwigs in the U.S. military decide to remove the human factor from that particular link in the chain of command. Enter Dabney Coleman as McKittrick, the cheerleader for a plan to replace missile silo crewmen with electronic relays that will be run by the War Operations Plan and Response mainframe, or “W.O.P.R.” McKittrick convinces the President’s lackeys that the W.O.P.R. is the wave of the future and in no time (especially when you consider that we’re talking about unwieldy military bureaucracy) McKittrick’s electronic gizmo is in control of United States nuclear defense.

Meanwhile, in Seattle (just a MIRV’s throw from NORAD), young computer nerd David Lightman (Broderick) is up to his old tricks: flunking exams, getting sent to the principal’s office, and hacking into the school’s system to change his failing biology grade. Significantly (though no one realized it at the time), his discovery of the school’s password leads directly to the first Real World Computer Tip “WarGames” Taught Us: don’t keep passwords right next to your PC…and try to make them a little more complicated than “pencil.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but the “grade changing” scene alone convinced me of the awesome power of the computer, and set me on a quest to exploit that same power for my own uses. Nothing ever came of it, obviously, but my personal failures aren’t really relevant.

Joining David in his exploits is Jennifer Mack (Sheedy), a fellow biology student who has possible romantic designs on the young man, and not just (we hope) because he changed her grade as well. Sheedy’s character also serves as the audience’s avatar, asking questions about all the wonderful technology (the Electrochrome monitor, the 8-inch floppy drive) and boggling at the fact that one computer could actually call another one up to make plane reservations.

David, not very impressed with high school (there’s an original concept), sees an ad for a computer company called ProtoVision that promises a new wave of computer gaming. Intrigued, he decides to break into their system. In the course of his efforts, he accidentally phones up the W.O.P.R. The system’s security defies his efforts to break in, which only increases his desire to get past their front-end defenses and play their assumedly kick-a*s games.

Those of us who remember video games from 1983 could’ve told him not to bother, unless he was really that keen on playing some version of Atari’s “Adventure,” where he could frantically move a little dot around while trying to escape from a dragon that looked like a duck. Any hacker worth his salt would be transferring funds from First Seattle to a Swiss bank. On second thought, I guess that kind of behavior would make David a little less endearing.

He does manage to access the “Games” menu, where he discovers hoary old pastimes like checkers and chess giving way to intriguing selections like “Theater-Wide Biological and Chemical Warfare” and “Global Thermonuclear War.” His immediate reaction is, quite understandably, “Oh my God.” This is obviously meant to convey surprise and ominous portent, but I like to think the deleted next line was, “Those games sound AWESOME.”

The story continues in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “WARGAMES”>>>


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