WarGames (1983): John Badham’s Futuristic Thriller

John Badham’s futuristic thriller “WarGames,” intriguingly scripted by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, came out in 1983, before computers and the Internet were prevalent. In many ways, it was prophetic, though at the time it was the kind of movie based on the assumption “What If”.

The film stars the young Matthew Broderick in an early screen role after making a splash on stage in Harvey Fierstein’s gay drama”Torch Song Trilogy.” Broderick plays David Lightman, a bright Seattle high-schooler who is a computer hacker, using his IMSAI microcomputer and modem for all kinds of searches connected to the public phone system. Not a particularly good pupil, he uses his technology to change his bad grades, which are stored in the school’s computer, as well as those of his friend Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy, member of the Rat Pack).

After seeing an ad for a new game company in Creative Computing magazine, David dials numbers in Sunnyvale, California, trying to find their system. Several efforts later, he succeeds in finding a list of games, which bear the suspicious names of “Theaterwide Biotoxic-Chemical Warfare” and “Global Thermonuclear War”. With the assistance of older hackers, David tries to find a backdoor password, one of which suggests tracking down the Falken referenced in the game “Falken’s Maze.”

To his surprise, David realizes that the instructor Stephen Falken (British stage actor John Wood) was an early artificial intelligence researcher. Later, he finds out that he can use the name of Falken’s late son (Joshua) to gain further access. He starts a game of Global Thermonuclear War vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, with Las Vegas and Seattle as strike targets.

Unbeknownst to him, David logs into a NORAD military supercomputer system called WOPR, programmed by Falken. Intended as war game simulation, it was later given control of the U.S. arsenal of ICBMs, after tests showing that some crews failed to launch their missiles.

As a pop culture phenomenon, “WarGames” cannot be understood if we don’t take into account Reagan’s popular administration in the early 1980s, and the Cold War ambience that his regime encouraged, also manifest in Sylevster Stallone’s “Rambo” and other right-wing revisionist Vietnam War films.

David’s games lead NORAD to believe that actual Soviet nuclear missiles are inbound. There’s danger that that WOPR will continue to play the Global Thermonuclear War until it gets its desirable results by feeding false data like bomber incursions and submarines sailing from the Soviets to NORAD, which might escalate into a major conflict, World War III.

Caught by the FBI, David is taken to Cheyenne Mountain, from which he escapes in a rather unconvincing scene. In Oregon, he regroups with Falken, who had retired after his son’s death.

David and Jennifer work hard to convince Falken that nuclear annihilation might occur is they don’t stop these games. Catastrophe is aborted when David and Falken teach WOPR about the futility of war by getting it to play games against itself–the WOPR shows the various nuclear war plans.

At the time, the expensive NORAD set got a lot of publicity. But the movie was a box-office hit, grossing over $70 million in the U.S. alone; it was not very popular abroad. It’s worth noting that the movie divided movie critics at the time, and the influential Vincent Canby of the New York Times panned it.


Matthew Broderick–David Lightman
Dabney Coleman–Dr. John McKittrick
John Wood–Dr. Stephen Falken
Ally Sheedy–Jennifer Katherine Mack
Barry Corbin–General Jack Beringer
Michael Ensign–Beringer’s Assistant
Michael Madsen–Steve Phelps
Alan Blumenfeld–Mr. Liggett
Eddie Deezen–Malvin

Oscar Alert

“WarGames” was nominated for three Oscar Awards: and Original Screenplay for Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, Cinematography for William A. Fraker, and Sound for Michael J. Kohut, Carlos de Larios, Aaron Rochin, and Willie D. Burton.

The winners in these categories were: Horton Foote for his script for “Tender Mercies,” which was nominated for Best Picture and brought Robert Duval his first and Only Best Actor. Ingmar Bergman’s splendid fable “Fanny and Alexander” won the Cinematography for Sven Nykvist, and Philip Kaufman’s action-adventure “The Right Stuff” won the Sound Award.