August 15, 2011

We’ve had years of warnings. We’ve all known that computers were going to take over the world someday. But the books and the movies that predicted it never said it would be such a quiet overthrow. The machines slipped into our homes and businesses and modestly suggested that they serve us; we jumped at the offer, and they made us dependent on them. Quietly—with only the low purr of entering and the gleeful chattering of printing to mark the shift of power.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the computer at my workplace. It knows so much. And it tries to keep me from going wrong—when I give it the wrong date, it stops me and says, “WHAT YEAR?” When I move to eliminate information, it wonders whether I should reconsider: “DELETE? ARE YOU SURE?” Like a wise grandfather—but without the accommodating knee—it cares about the decisions I make, and wants me to do the right thing, though it won’t actually stop me, as long as I’m sure about what I want.

We even share secrets, like the special password that will let me into its system. So why is it I don’t really trust the thing? Maybe it’s the influence of all those paranoid fantasies about computers seizing control of the world, plus the nagging suspicion that they’re like those dogs who serve the master faithfully for years and then turn homicidal one day, without apparent reason.

Popular culture has played with that suspicion for a couple of decades now, and WarGames—officially designated this summer’s E.T., even before it opened—is in the tradition of computer mistrust. This Seattle kid (Matthew Broderick) has an astonishingly elaborate set of computer terminals in his bedroom, which he uses to make long-distance airline reservations, change his computer-recorded high school grades, and the like. One day he realizes he’s bumped up against the system of the U.S. National Defense. Neat! But he can’t get in—until he hears that computer programmers sometimes leave a “back door” (that is, a secret password) in systems they design so that they can go back in someday, if they ever need to. Broderick comes up with the password, and asks the system if it would like to play a little game. Chess? Naah. Mebbe some checkers? Forget about it. Thermonuclear war? Cowabunga! The computer takes the American side, Broderick is the Russians (among his first moves: nuke the Emerald City) and they’re off and running on some harmless fun.

A boy and his computer; it’s a new twist, but it had to happen. The only problem is, the head honcho (Dabney Coleman) down at the War Room just convinced the government to switch responsibility for a nuclear retaliatory strike from human operatives (too unreliable) to the monster computer known as WOPR (as in, “Aren’t You Hungry?”). So when Broderick start playing hide-the-densepack, WOPR thinks it’s for real, flashes an image on the War Room screen of a warhead arcing toward the Space Needle, and prepares for a full-scale counterattack. Broderick has to interrupt the game when his Dad calls him downstairs to clean up the garbage in the driveway, but the computer wants to keep right on playing the game…and so it does.

You get the idea. And a good idea it is, too. It’s a shame WarGames never really gets past the level of being a good idea; the plot starts to go kattywampus about the time Broderick gets arrested while sucking down a Big Gulp outside the local 7-Eleven. The holes in the script begin to whistle in the wind; more important than that, there’s that Something Missing that keeps good movies from being great ones—the absence of commitment, of artistic investment. The blame for this hollowness is most handily given to the switch in directors during shooting—Martin (Going in Style) Brest began the movie, but it was A John Badham Film before the cameras stopped rolling.

Mr. Big Close-Up tries hard to pump some suspense into the proceedings, but that’s tough to do when the audience can sit there and say, “Uh, why doesn’t somebody just pick up the phone and call the War Room….” There’s nothing wrong with Badham’s method, but it’s not particularly inspiring. Still, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (the morsel of jailbait on a recent “Hill Street Blues”) are likable, and John Wood does more with his confusedly-written part than it deserves. It just seems as though we deserve a more coherent and unified piece of filmmaking, especially with the stakes so high.

First published in The Informer, June 1983

Densepack: I had to Google it just now to find out what it meant in 1983. I watched Martin Brest make a shot for this film one day on the University of Washington campus, a brief look at Broderick crossing some stairs by Red Square. I worked in an office with a computer back then, and I was still in the early stage of wonder about the thing. Watched this movie again about a year ago, and sure enough, it isn’t as good as it should be. Also: RIP John Wood, who died a few days ago, and whose patrician air somehow fit his name.