Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: For The A.V. Club’s Artificial Intelligence Week, we’re focusing on sentient computers and computer programs, a.k.a. our future overlords.
If WarGames were made today, there’s no doubt it would be accused—like everything from The Muppets to Wall-E—of having a leftist agenda, since its anti-nuke/anti-war message is so pronounced. And though parts of it are awesomely dated now, this sci-fi movie from Saturday Night Fever director John Badham does seem ahead of the curve in its portrayal of artificial intelligence. Matthew Broderick plays a teen hacker who accidentally finds himself in virtual contact with “Joshua,” which he at first assumes is a software developer, but turns out to be a Defense Department simulator. Though Joshua suggests they play a “nice game of chess,” Broderick insists on “Global Thermonuclear War,” launching a simulation that puts NORAD into a panic.
Broderick is precociously entertaining in his first major film role, finding the character—a kid smarter than all the adults around him—that he’d refine a few years later as Ferris Bueller. Here, he has NORAD tech guy Dabney Coleman to play off of. (In one of their first meetings, Broderick, the literal snot-nosed teen, wipes his own schnoz with his shirtsleeve.) But it’s the kid, along with girlfriend Ally Sheedy and mysterious Joshua inventor John Wood, who figure out that the artificial intelligence just needs to learn that nuclear war is like Tic-Tac-Toe: A breathless scene in which the simulator is about to launch actual nuclear weapons is cross-cut with the machine playing the game against itself, and never winning.
Joshua (a.k.a. WOPR, or War Operation Plan Response) finally learns after all of its simulations that “The only winning move is not to play.” Did you hear that, commanders of the American and Soviet military machines? You’re just going to kill us all, and for what? Even an artificial intelligence running on a 300-baud modem knows that nothing good can come of it. The screenplay was good enough for an Oscar nomination, though it stood no chance against the likes of Tender Mercies (which won), The Big Chill, Fanny And Alexander, or Silkwood. John Badham, meanwhile, would go on to explore artificial intelligence in far sillier ways with Short Circuit.
Availability: WarGames is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased digitally through Amazon.