In the opening scene of the 1983 blockbuster WarGames, two missile commanders (played by Michael Madsen and John Spencer!) receive an order to launch a nuclear attack, and one almost kills the other in a dispute over how to proceed. Those kind of "what if" scenarios were rampant in the Cold War era, and if WarGames were exclusively about nuclear paranoia, it would be an amusing nostalgia piece, quaintly reminding us of what we used to worry about. But WarGames is also about issues that still resonate, like Internet security, authoritarian arrogance, and coming of age.
Director John Badham (taking over for Martin Brest, who was canned shortly after shooting began) brings a light touch to Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes' tense, well-structured script, by keeping the action focused on what matters most to the audience. Matthew Broderick plays a high-school computer geek—the prototypical model—who accidentally hacks into the system controlling the U.S. missile-defense system, and starts a simulation that the system reads as real. With his girlfriend Ally Sheedy by his side, Broderick tries to duck the military and find the system's reclusive, misanthropic creator by using his phone-phreaking skills, his dot-matrix printer, and floppy discs roughly the size of a legal pad.
Badham and company elide a lot of technical details of hacking, but the basics of the nascent computer culture still feel spot-on, right down to the body type and personalities of Eddie Deezen and Maury Chaykin, who play two of Broderick's techno-literate confederates (and work in Seattle, no less). More important is how WarGames plays up the contrast between teenagers—rebellious on the surface but conformist by nature—with a cynical adult world that has become convinced that nuclear annihilation might not be so bad. What endures about WarGames is the way Broderick keeps trying to talk sense to both the adults and the computers—the former when they blindly follow what enormous electronic screens tell them to do, and the latter when they innocently ask, "Shall we play a game?"
Key features: A lively commentary track from Lasker, Parkes, and Badham (the latter one of the most gregarious DVD commenters around), plus four lengthy retrospective featurettes revealing the unrecognized influences of Stephen Hawking, John Lennon, and videogame soundtracks on the making of WarGames.