Wednesday, 9 February 2011

80s Movies: WarGames (1983)

The second in a Matthew Broderick (Godzilla, The Stepford Wives) double bill - but actually the first of the films to be released - WarGames is a very different kind of 80s movie from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It's always strange writing about a film released in the year I was born. In fact, WarGames was in cinemas just two weeks before I arrived, which gives it a personal relevance as a snapshot of the world into which I was born.

What it portrays is the remnants of the Cold War, which was entering its final stages in the early 80s. Told through the eyes of Broderick's David Lightman, what seems like two hours of fairly disposable drama actually highlights some of the key aspects of the stalemate between the US and Russia in the post-war era - including the futility of nuclear war.

The Plot

Considering all of the Cold War dogma that goes into WarGames, it's actually quite an intriguing plot. For a start, there's not a great deal of genuine Soviet Union action involved. Instead, there's all manner of mistrust among Americans, including Lightman, the military, and their artificial intelligence computer intended to protect the security of the nation.

At its most basic level, the entire movie boils down to an AI machine gone a bit wrong, as the logic programmed into the WOPR supercomputer leads it to pretend the Russians have fired nuclear missiles, when they actually have not. Ultimately it is the computer's own ability to learn - and to draw reasonable conclusions that might escape many humans - that lead it to stand down its (real) retaliatory US strike that would trigger World War III and, no doubt, the apocalypse.

Special mention here has to go to a true 80s legend, Ally Sheedy (Short Circuit, The Breakfast Club) who plays love interest Jennifer. OK, it's no Stephanie in terms of significance to the film, but any Sheedy appearance adds a little extra bonus to an 80s film.

The Tech

This is one of those 'terrifying future' kinds of films, looking ahead to an overly connected world in which hackers can gain access to all manner of personal data if they can just find an open port. Actually, that's not so far from the truth. But WarGames spins the argument on its head, ignoring the Big Brother scare story that usually gets told and focusing instead on one boy and his really, really 80s-looking modem.

While the technology may have come a long way since 1983, not that much has really changed. We now have sophisticated versions of the modem that can use the telephone line while voice calls are in progress, and can transfer data much faster. But beyond that, things haven't changed massively.

As one commentator pointed out recently, in light of the political upheavals in Egypt - if everyone still used dial-up, the protestors would only need a landline in order to tell the world what they are going through. Instead they face being totally cut off from the rest of the world, simply because the government can flick a switch and turn off the broadband. Those kinds of observations make films like WarGames bizarrely relevant as historical studies, in a very strange kind of way.

80s Movies

In February, POPSICULTURE are dedicating the month to a look back at the iconic films of the 1980s - a decade whose films continue to draw massive audiences when they are shown on TV. To follow posts in this series, check the 80s Movies label or sign up to the dedicated RSS feed.

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