Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Five

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#45 — WarGames (John Badham, 1983)
I completely understand that a multitude of factors are weighed when determining the release dates of films. The timing of their respective arrivals on on screens nationwide only has so much to do with the timing of their respective completions; they’re not rushed out like freshly baked bread. If Jeff Bridges appears in a film about war across a digital landscape that shows up in mid-December and then also stars as a broken down cowboy in another cinematic offering that begins playing less than a week later, the proximity of their release dates provides no real concrete information about the chronology of the films’ respective productions. Even so, I’ve always been impressed by the odd little feat pulled off by director John Badham in the summer of 1983, when he could claim authorship of two superb techno-thrillers that were released within a month of each other. It started in the mid-May with the unveiling of Blue Thunder, a movie centered on a helicopter tricked out with the latest scientific marvels. Then, in early June, he topped himself with the terrifically entertaining WarGames.

The story follows a high school student named David who is especially proficient with his home computer, still a fairly novel contraption at the time, although it was beginning to make significant inroads into the accumulated possessions within American middle class homes. David is sly enough to nick the latest password for the computer at his school and manages to use his squawking modem to communicate across town and improve his grades. Emboldened by the ease with which he did that, David tries to hack into a gaming company, unwittingly tapping into the United States defense system, and his game of Global Thermonuclear War takes on harrowing consequences.

Networks, firewalls and back doors were all largely foreign concepts at the time WarGames was released, and the script by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes expertly exploits the emergent fretting about where all this technology was going to take the increasingly precarious world. The film’s notion about a bored teenager setting international mayhem into motion from the messy confines of his bedroom is equal parts prescient and loopily fanciful. It properly forecasts the infinite interconnected to come, but misreads the dangers. Still, once the brash military commanders within NORAD start clashing with the cerebral scientists who respect the potency and possibility of a society bound and empowered by the unyielding logic of computerized brains, the film sparks with the natural conflict of systems advancing more quickly that anyone can handle. Badham propels the story with taut conviction, working with a cast that makes certain insightful humanity isn’t obscured away by the film’s ample blinking lights. Matthew Broderick is especially good in only his second film role, playing David with the right dose of impatient teenage arrogance that’s quickly tempered by very real fear when he begins to comprehend what he’s triggered.

WarGames is one of those films that’s nestled perfectly into its moment. It came out just at the point when the computer-connected world was transforming from the stuff of crazy sci-fi novels to a bold new reality, and there was still little understanding as to where it might all lead. That uncertainty is built fully into the film, and yet it’s so skillfully made that it doesn’t feel dated even as its technology has been lapped twenty times over. It’s of its time, and perfectly exploits the unique landscape of that moment, but its messages–of technology versus humanity, youth against maturity, the pointless futility of war–still carry weight. In some ways, it also predicts the path of moviemaking itself. Before long, technology would start overlapping reality, and the difference would become harder and harder to discern.

2 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Five

  1. I love your comment about films that come out at just the right moment – some how that makes it a powerful film down the road or makes it stale an inaccessible.

    I suppose that’s one of the great things about contemporary films watched retrospectively. Enjoyed this post.

    1. Thanks very much. As challenging as it can sometimes be to put your mind in era in which a film is mind (an especially important exercise when watching classic Hollywood cinema), I do love it when the shifting context of time gives a film some different shadings.

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