Wargames (1983)


“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The Scoop: 1983 PG, directed by John Badham and starring Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and John Wood

Tagline: Is it a game, or is it real?

Summary Capsule: Mad 1337 haxxor skillz almos7 ki11 teh p1an37. I have to now shoot myself for typing out that sentence.

Justin’s rating: Hacking the Gibson

Justin’s review: My childhood crush on Ally Sheedy aside, WarGames stands significant in movie history for obsoleting itself, not once, but twice. That is what we writers call “the hook.” How’d I do?

And, yes, I’m fairly aware that “obsoleting” is probably not a verb, nor was ever meant to be outside of a doublespeak interrogation room in The Ministry of Love.

For its era, WarGames was a popular flick, and probably remains as one of the essential ’80s teen movies in many a nostalgic mind. For newcomers, you’re likely to be bored, wander off from the tour, and probably fall into a well and die. They don’t teach survival skills in school any more.

A young Matthew Broderick is David, a cutting-edge computer hacker (well, cutting-edge for 1983) and phone phreak whose boredom leads him to hacking into NORAD’s main computer and challenging the artificial intelligence there to a “game”. David thinks it’s nothing more than a weird war game simulating World War III; the computer — which automatically controls nuclear launches — doesn’t differentiate so much between real and fantasy. Where’s Captain Kirk to be found when a computer needs smashing so that the society can go back to the Industrial Ages? Thus, David starts a seemingly-inevitable countdown to a worldwide nuclear holocaust, becoming the most violent video game killer ever.

This era of on-the-brink atomic destruction, mostly between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., is the first thing that really dates the flick. Yes, there are still nukes in the world today and evil people who wish to use them, but we’ve long since passed from the Cold War period where it was a fact of life that, if one of our countries got grumpy at each other, we could all be dead before finishing breakfast. And I needed my Kix to get going in the morning! Also, come to think of it, probably a lot of MRFH’s readers weren’t even alive when the Cold War ended. Wild.

No matter what your nuclear politics are — yes, Superman thinks they is bad — they were part of what kept the world relatively safe and sane throughout the eighties, even if the globe had a stay of execution that could’ve been withdrawn at any moment. To really “get” WarGames, you had to know this time period and the sheer fear that people had (rightly so) of mutually assured destruction. However, that’s not where we live now, and well over twenty years later, it’s quickly passing into the history books.

The second way WarGames became obsolete is the same as any other hacker-style movie: the technology evolved. It’s always a quaint trip down happy lane to watch people use computers in 80’s flicks; heck, back then we were gaga over computers. Computers and robots seemed to have the potential to do just about anything, including the ability to create a fully-formed fantasy woman, and probably the first people to see WarGames were in awe of all the hacking and lingo and gigantic floppy disc drives present. WarGames was one of the first hacker movies ever, with a spiritual succession to Sneakers and Hackers. Yet, again, time is not kind to old technology, and I severely doubt you will be impressed with a 1200-baud computer modem that requires you to put a phone receiver onto a little cradle, when you probably have a cell phone that has far more computing power than most 1983 computers ever did.

Other than these two points of dated interest, WarGames just doesn’t offer a lot. The characters fill their roles, but say nothing too memorable; the NORAD room is impressive, but nothing that a James Bond lair hasn’t seen; and the climax is essentially a “stop the bomb from ticking before it reaches 0 on the clock” with some padding. No, not pudding, padding. Give it a skip, unless you want to revisit a slice of an era long gone.

Ferris Bueller: End boss of Galaga
Ferris Bueller: End boss of Galaga


  • The studio had a Galaga and a Galaxian machine delivered to Matthew Broderick’s home, where he practiced for two months to prepare for the arcade scene.
  • The computer used to break into NORAD was programmed to make the correct words appear on the screen, no matter which keys were pressed.
  • 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.”
  • The original director was Martin Brest, and several of the scenes he shot are still in the movie. When John Badham took over as director he changed the photographic process. It’s possible to see changes in the frame lines between old and new footage.
  • The dual 8-inch floppy drive is an IMSAI FDC-2, the monitor is a 17-inch Electrohome, the keyboard is an IMSAI IKB-1, and the 1200 baud modem (on top of the monitor) is a Cermetek 212A relabeled with the name “IMSAI”. The acoustic coupler prop was added for visual effect only.
  • The launch code that Joshua “figures out” for himself at the end of the movie is: CPE 1704 TKS
  • Director John Badham is recorded voice on the pocket tape recorder in the infirmary
  • As in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, both mothers are real estate agents.
  • When the message for the tour group in NORAD is activated, the sound effect that plays is actually used in the video game Galaga, and can also be heard if you listen carefully when David is playing it in the beginning of the movie.
  • WOPR goes through more than 150 possible scenarios in Global Thermonuclear War, including Zaire Alliance, Gabon Surprise, and English Thrust.
  • Passwords cannot be broken incrementally: either the entire password is right or it is entirely wrong.

Groovy Quotes

Mr. Liggett: All right, Lightman. Maybe you can tell us who first suggested the idea of reproduction without sex.
David: Um, your wife?

Nigan: He does fit the profile perfectly. He’s intelligent, but an under-achiever; alienated from his parents; has few friends. Classic case for recruitment by the Soviets.

David: Later. Right now let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.
Joshua: Fine.

David: What is the primary goal?
Joshua: To win the game.

Joshua: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

Mr. Lightman: This corn is raw!
Mrs. Lightman: I know, isn’t it wonderful? It’s so crisp!
Mr. Lightman: Of course it’s crisp! It’s raw!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Sneakers
  • Hackers
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


  1. Of course there’s the fact that Hollywood writers by and large have never had a firm grasp as to how computers work and still don’t. Sometimes you wonder how they manage to turn their own computers on and use their word processing programs.

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