Friday, June 02, 2023

40 Years Ago: WarGames

The genre films of 1983 focused largely on two subjects.  The first was computers and computer video games. And the second was nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  

And in some rare instances -- such as WarGames (1983) -- the two topics aligned perfectly.

The year 1983 saw Richard Pryor’s super-computer menace the Man of Steel in Superman III, and Sean Connery’s James Bond back in action in Never Say Never Again to battle Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) over a video game of (nuclear) “Global Domination.”

Meanwhile, in the horror anthology Nightmares, Emilio Estevez got zapped into an arcade game to combat the artificial intelligence called “The Bishop of Battle.” 

In terms of nuclear war, 1983 was the year of the terrifying Nicholas Meyer TV-movie The Day After.   That unforgettable film showcased the gruesome effects of a nuclear war on Americans in Kansas.  Another affecting film of 1983 concerning nuclear war was Testament, starring Jane Alexander.

Why the Hollywood obsession with both computerized games and nuclear war in 1983? 

On the former front, Atari, Intellivision, the Commodore Vic20 and other technological platforms had altered the American landscape permanently in terms of home media gaming and computing.  Suddenly, computers were making the move into every middle-class home in the nation.  The “future” was here.

On the latter front, President Ronald Reagan had been swept into office in 1980 on a platform of economic recovery, but he was also, at least initially, a hawk regarding nuclear war.  In fact, his administration was a strong proponent for a concept called winnable nuclear war, as the historical record clearly demonstrates.

President Reagan’s adviser, Richard Pipes, in 1982, for instance, noted the “probability of nuclear war is forty percent….and our strategy is winnable nuclear war.” 

Meanwhile, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, T.K. Jones remarked in 1981 that “The United States could recover from an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years…Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we have been led to believe.  If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.  Dig a hole in the ground, cover it up with a couple of doors, and then cover the doors with three feet of dirt…”

In 1981 President Reagan himself noted that there could (safely) be a “limited nuclear war in Europe.” His vice-president, George H.W. Bush, in 1980 even described how to prove victorious in the nuclear war scenario:  “You have a survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have the capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict upon you.  That’s the way you have a winner.”

Meanwhile, on February 5, 1981, future Secretary of the Interior James Watt noted to Congress that there might not be "many future generations...before the Lord returns."  

When one couples the pervasive rah-rah attitude about waging winnable nuclear war with the apocalyptic Christianist visions of many Administration officials, including Reagan himself -- as was reported in People Magazine in December 1983 (where he explained that the eighties represented the first time in history that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true...) -- one can understand why many Americans, especially young ones, felt very afraid about the future

Some have credited his viewing of The Day After (1983) as the very thing that turned Ronald Reagan from an ardent warrior in the winnable-nuclear war sweepstakes to a staunch proponent for peace with the Soviet Union. He had to face down the more right-wing elements of his own party -- including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (who wrote a letter to the Washington Post urging the president not to give up the nuclear store) -- to wage that fight

Today, we can be grateful for President Reagan’s change of heart, and for his persistence at Geneva and Reykjavik in the mid-to-late 1980s, but WarGames -- released in 1983 -- very clearly obsesses on the inherent madness of the “winnable” nuclear war scenario; the very attitude still prevalent in our national defense establishment in 1982.

Specifically, WarGames sees advanced computers as bringing man one step closer to all-out nuclear Armageddon, primarily because machines don’t boast any sense of morality. 

If men can't act according to human decency and conscience, what are the chances their machines will? 

For a movie about the end of the world, however, WarGames is surprisingly sweet and gentle in its prognosis. The “villainous” computer that nearly initiates World War III is treated with humanity by the film's protagonist, and eventually taught the error of its ways. It is “schooled” by the best of the human race -- kids -- so that it understands that the only way to win a nuclear war is simply not to play. 

Interestingly, the case the humans make in the film is not one explicitly about morality (which a machine can’t fathom, I suppose), but about futility, as empirically demonstrated by numbers..  The computer runs through a nearly-infinite series of test war simulations in a matter of seconds and determines that, in every conceivable permutation of thermonuclear war, there is no winner.  

Why engage in a game in which there is no victor?

40 years after it premiered, WarGames remains a lot of fun, even if it is not as powerful as it once was.  In particular, the John Badham film features some deft visuals and certainly has a lot of heart.  

 WarGames loses some impact in 2023 and even seems dull at spots.  It’s a good film, to be certain, but I remember seeing it in 1983 and thinking how terribly plausible it all seemed.  Watching it this weekend, I was struck by pleasant feelings of nostalgia, but not consumed with excitement or fear.

 “Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.”

Hoping to preview a new exciting game from a company called Protovision, high-school student and computer whiz David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally hacks into a computer at NORAD, the W.O.P.R. (War Operations Plan Response).  

David engages the machine in a game of Global Thermonuclear War, unaware that the game could have catastrophic real life ramifications.

After David is arrested by officials at NORAD, he learns that the machine is still playing the war game, and that only some know-how insight from its creator, Dr. Falken (John Wood) can stop W.O.P.R., or “Joshua.”  David escapes from custody and with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), sets out to find Falken, now a recluse following the death of his family.

At first, Falken is unwilling to help, believing that “extinction is part of the natural order,” but David and Jennifer soon persuade him to help them stop the countdown to nuclear Armageddon. 

“People sometimes make mistakes.”

WarGames opens with a frightening scenario. Two military men in a bunker are given the order to launch nuclear missiles and, in essence, destroy 20 million lives.  

One man can’t do it.  One man can. But without both men on the same page, the missiles don’t fire. 

Upon audit of this event, the Army and Administration officials are very upset.

If the President wants to launch a nuclear attack, he can’t have a 22% failure rate because his soldiers have an outbreak of morality over causing mass murder, can he?

Instead of honoring human morality, the Armed Forces and Administration decide that the way to remedy this situation is to remove mankind from the loop entirely; to take men out of those launch stations and replace them with computer relays that operate automatically, and are connected to a machine called W.O.P.R.

In other words, it is better to double down on the concept of winnable nuclear war than to question if global self-destruction and mass murder are actually rational courses of action.

This opening sequence remains one of WarGames' finest.  It is tense, well-acted, and it immediately sets the stakes.  We quickly sympathize with the soldiers tasked with destroying the world, and gasp at how stupid the bureaucrats are. They want to have their nuclear war no matter what, and are not going to let a little thing like individual conscience stop them.  By stumbling down this particularly repugnant path (and never looking back…), they nearly doom the entire human race to extinction.

On a much more human and intimate level, WarGames also proves intriguing today because it understands that the future of human race involves, largely, people gazing at screens.  

In this movie, there are big screens, little screens, arcade game screens, home computer screens, and wall-sized screens displaying Missile Command-like graphics, not to mention Tic-Tac-Toe playing boards.  

Plainly, the idea here is that man has crossed a threshold into a new world, one where computers are at the center of every facet of life, whether it is playing games, booking airline tickets, or waging war. And yes, this observation is prophetic in terms of 1983's understanding of the future. Today, we do all those things by computer on a regular basis, and many of us spend eight-hours a day, five days a week gazing at monitor screens.

Screens, screens everywhere...

Would you like to play a game?

Accordingly, several times throughout WarGames, director Badham cuts to images of these myriad screens, and we detect a human face reflected upon them.  This image could be considered a visual way of “boxing in” the characters’ usable space in the composition, positioning them in a frame-within-a-frame, and thus revealing their entrapment or enslavement by the machine.   

Or it could be, perhaps more trenchantly, a way of suggesting a shared world.  People like David are seen, literally, inside the confines of the computer screens, via their reflections. Have we built "children" that will one day be our equals?

The question this brand of composition raises is simple: Are we a reflection of our computers?  Or are they a reflection of us? If we fail to teach our machines our morality, how can they accurately reflect us, their masters and "parents"?  

Contrarily, we could ask: do the computers we stare at all day succeed, instead, in “de-humanizing” us, turning matters of life and death into exercises in statistics, percentages and other equations?

What happens to mankind when life-and-death decisions are reduced to math?  In examining that question, WarGames is a cautionary tale about handing over too much authority, and ceding too much humanity, to computers.

The frequent compositions in WarGames that reveal computer screens, and human reflections “locked” inside them, suggest in uncomfortable ways, a fear of computers and technology, but also a fear of deeper symbiosis with our tools and instrumentation. If the world were destroyed in the scenario presented by this film, it would be because we failed to make our machines a real reflection of our hopes and dreams, it seems.  It will be because we have failed as parents.

Are we reflections of our creations?

Or are they reflections of us?

In some oblique way, WarGames also implies that self-annihilation is in our very nature.  Falken suggests that “nature knows when to give up,” and seems to believe that man has reached that threshold because he has constructed machines -- computerized sons and daughters, essentially -- who lack our conscience and capacity to care.   Only when W.O.P.R. creates a “computer enhanced hallucination” of the end of the world do people readily detect how they are gambling with the world’s future, and humanity’s future by handing over control of our weaponry to the machines.

One quality I have always admired about the film involves the solution to this problem. There isn’t some all-out effort to destroy or unplug W.O.P.R. in WarGames.  Instead, David runs the seemingly-curious machine through the rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe so it can understand futility; how two sides of equal strength can fight to a draw…but  no better. 

This solution suggests that machines are not really such bad sorts after all, if they can -- like us -- gain practical experience. Fortunately, W.O.P.R. can play a few thousand simulations of Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War in a few minutes and arrive at the conclusion that there is no winning strategy.   He just needs to be taught, and humanity needs to teach him.

In the character of Falken, we very much see this idea of a “father” figure.  He has even named W.O.P.R. “Joshua” after his dead son. But because W.O.P.R. is a machine, Falken has been able to walk away from his creation both physically and emotionally, and become a kind of absentee parent. When David communicates with W.O.P.R. as Dr. Falken by using his password, there even seems to be a longing on the machine’s part for his father’s presence.  He seems to have missed him, after a fashion.  

In many ways, that idea of being “responsible parents” to our technology is more timely today than the nuclear countdown or thriller aspects of WarGames. The technology is different in 2023, but the problem, perhaps, hasn't really changed.

I remember first seeing WarGames in 1983 and being absolutely terrified by it. Today, that emotional response seems a little silly, given the film’s abundant sense of humor and the jokey scenes involving Broderick and Sheedy as they hack into NORAD and evade capture. 

But what’s impossible to convey if you didn’t live through the eighties is just how pervasive the fear of nuclear war was, circa 1980 – 1983. I remember going to sleep almost every night and worrying about nuclear war.  

Where would we go to survive?  How would we live?  What if it happened when I was away at college, and I couldn't re-connect with my family?  

These were not remote, intellectual issues for cerebral or dispassionate debate.  

As a thirteen year old, these were the thoughts that I ended each day with as I fell into slumber. These thoughts were never far from consciousness, and certainly many films of the era, from the Mad Max trilogy to Dreamscape (1984), from Night of the Comet (1984) to WarGames tapped into this pervasive apocalypse mentality. I can assure you, when I was thirteen years old this John Badham movie had me on the edge of my seat throughout, and I wondered -- and worried -- if today could be doomsday. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you posted this! I recently saw another article that, perhaps not unjustly, viewed the film through an arguably harsher modern lens. In particular, of course, the film often gets chided for two main faults: 1) The unlikelihood of the young protagonists' friendship; and 2) the leap that Broderick's character is able to cause all of this from his personal/home computer. These may indeed be far-fetched, but I still remember being captivated by both the film and the novelization. If the film stretches belief, it nevertheless is fun and raises important points. A post script: with reference to the video game focus you mention, I would argue that this was developed the following year, albeit in a lighter science fiction vein, in "The Last Starfighter," in which a video game turned out to be a simulation for a recruiting test.


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