Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Military Intelligence” with a minor in “Oxymorons”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!
This week Supercult plays missile command, contemplates the end of the world, and wishes he were better at chess after watching WarGames!
During a drill of a nuclear attack many US military men prove unwilling to launch a missile strike. In response, engineers at NORAD decide that missile launch controls should be automated and the War Operation Plan Response, or WOPR, Supercomputer is put into service. Meanwhile David Lightman, a high school student and amateur hacker, finds an interesting computer system with games like chess, checkers, and Global Thermonuclear War, but when he probes deeper he realizes that he may not just be playing games. Shall we play some WarGames?
Released in 1983, in the twilight years of the Cold War, WarGames is a science-fiction film starring Mathew Broderick as the hero David Lightman, Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, a NORAD engineer, John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken, an AI researcher and the voice of the WOPR, and Ally Sheedy as David’s school friend Jennifer Mack. Development on WarGames begain in the late 70’s when writers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker developed an idea for a script calledThe Genius, about “a dying scientist and the only person in the world who understands him – a rebellious kid who’s too smart for his own good.” Lasker was inspired by a television special presented by Peter Ustinov on several geniuses including Stephen Hawking. Lasker said, “I found the predicament Hawking was in fascinating – that he might one day figure out the unified field theory and not be able to tell anyone, because of his progressive ALS. So there was this idea that he’d need a successor. And who would that be? Maybe this kid, a juvenile delinquent whose problem was that nobody realized he was too smart for his environment.” The concept of computers and hacking as part of the film was not yet present. Only when the pair met with researchers at Stanford and computer security experts did things start coming together. “There was a new subculture of extremely bright kids developing into what would become known as hackers,” said Schwartz. Parkes and Lasker would later work on another movie about computer crime called Sneakers.
One early version of the script involved a space-based defensive laser system run by an intelligent computer, but the idea was scrapped because it was too speculative. The character of Falken was inspired by Stephen Hawking with the appearance of John Lennon. Both were approached for the role, but both eventually declined
Martin Brest, known for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop, was originally hired as director, but was fired after only 12 days of shooting due to a disagreement with the producers. John Badham, who you might know as the director of Saturday Night Fever or Supercult Classic Short Circuit, was hired to replace Brest. Badham said that “[Brest had] taken a somewhat dark approach to the story and the way it was shot. It was like [Broderick and Sheedy] were doing some Nazi undercover thing. So it was my job to make it seem like they were having fun, and that it was exciting.” According to Badham, Broderick and Sheedy were “stiff as boards” when they came onto the sound stage. Watching Brest being fired from the sidelines had not sat well and the pair were in pretty bad spirits. Badham did 12–14 takes of the first shot to loosen the actors up. At one point, Badham decided to have a race with the two actors around the sound stage with the one who came last having to sing a song to the crew. Badham lost and sang “The Happy Wanderer”, the silliest song he could think of.
Badman actually coined the name “WOPR”, feeling that the name of NORAD’s SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) was “boring, and told you nothing”. The name “WOPR” played off of the Whopper hamburger, and a general sense of something going “whop”. The WOPR, as seen in the movie, was made of wood and painted with metal-finish paint. As the crew filmed the displays of the WOPR, Special Effects Supervisor Michael L. Fink sat inside and entered information into an Apple II computer that drove the countdown display.
The NORAD command center built for the movie was the most expensive set ever constructed up to that time, built at the cost of one million dollars. The producers were not allowed into the actual NORAD command center, so they had to imagine what it was like. In the DVD commentary, director John Badham notes that the actual NORAD command center isn’t nearly as elaborate as the one in the movie; he refers to the movie set as “NORAD’s wet dream of itself.”
When WarGames was released the film received copious critical acclaim. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars calling it “an amazingly entertaining thriller” and “one of the best films so far this year.” Computer Gaming World stated that “Wargames is plausible enough to intrigue and terrifying enough to excite … [it] makes one think, as well as feel, all the way”, raised several moral questions about technology and society, and recommended the film to “Computer hobbyists of all kinds”. WarGames was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Writing. For the impressive NORAD set which employed a new super-bright screen design that enabled the displays to be filmed live with no post-production work needed afterward the film received an Academy Scientific and Technical Award.
More than that however, WarGames was influential in the political world. President Reagan, a family friend of writer Lawrence Lasker, watched the film and discussed the plot with members of Congress and his advisors. Reagan’s interest in the film could be said to have led to the enactment of NSDD-145, the first Presidential Directive on computer security. WarGames also inspired congress to create and update the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984. Representative Kansas senator Dan Glickman, opened the proceedings by saying: “..are gonna show about four minutes from the movie ‘WarGames,’ which…outlines the problem fairly clearly.” A House committee report solemnly intoned: “‘WarGames’ showed a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer.”
WarGames has a 7.1 on IMDB and 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and it nearly septupled it’s budget, earning $79.5 million from a budget of just $12 million. In short WarGames isn’t a bad movie. It’s an amazing movie, so original and groundbreaking that many are looking to develop a sequel or remake. Though not a film classic, it remains an influential 80’s thriller and a benchmark for man v. machine face-offs. It’s an exciting, funny, thought-provoking film that reminds us to always be aware of the human element.
Is it a game, or is it real?
The Supercult show proudly presents, WarGames!