There are some movies that help to define a decade. This seems to be especially true for any film in the last twenty five years or so. With technology changing so rapidly a film that uses cutting edge technology is out of date minutes after the original release date. Still, there is a certain charm in looking back; even more so if you have lived long enough to have witnessed first hand those changes. If you look at a movie like 1982’s ‘TRON’ it is almost impossible to believe that back then this was a marvel of computer use in movies. If you look at the abilities of computers depicted then a typical cell phone has more computing power and better graphics. In the early eighties the personal computer was just catching on. Only a few years before the Apple ][ was the best home computing had to offer. The number of applications available was minimal and a lot of users programmed what ever they needed the machine to do. By 1982 IBM had gotten into the market and the PC craze took off. More and more homes had a computer sitting on the desk. The year after ‘TRON’ another film hit the theaters that used home computers as a main theme. This film was ‘Wargames’ and as hard to believe as it is the 25th anniversary DVD is being released. Yes, twenty five years; a quarter of a century has passed since some of us stood on lines to see this in the theater. The phrase ‘Shall we play a game’ became part of the popular vernacular and a classic film was born. This is a re-release though; the first DVD release of the film came at the dawn of the media back in 1998. This does indicate the staying power of the movie. The studios though there was enough demand to make this one of the first releases in the then new DVD format.
The film was written by Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker. Lasker hasn’t done a lot since this film but did write another Matthew Broderick flick, ‘Project X’ as well as ‘Sneakers’. Parkes has been working steadily mostly as producer on some high profile movies like ‘Amistad’, ‘Minority Report’, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, ‘Gladiator’ and the recent ‘Sweeney Todd’. There story here tapped into some of the new found fears over the proliferation of computers into homes all over the nation. Now, very smart but mischievous teenagers had access to computers and use them to access business machines almost anywhere in the world. The term that is thrown around in this script is hacker. While this is largely a pejorative term now back in the early days of the personal computer revolution it had an entirely different denotation. A hacker was someone who was expert in the use of computers, especially those that were bound together over the phone lines in a simple network. They would find backdoors into the systems and, back then, typically report the entry and help strengthen the system security. There were always the group that would hack for personal satisfaction or to steal code but it was not the primary use of the term in the hard core computing circles. This story centers on David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a wiz kid at computers but otherwise pretty much an under achiever. He figures that this is little reason to do well in class when he can just hack into the school’s computer and change his grades. There is even a little reference to one of the biggest problems in network security today; social engineering. David would get called into the guidance consoler’s office and when his back was turned look at the list of computer passwords for the school. It is not like the use of computers shown in this film was accurate even for twenty five years ago. Technology is the MacGuffin, vital to the players in the story but not as necessary to the audience. It is the possibility that a teenaged boy could trigger a global nuclear war that provides the thrills here.
Directing this ground breaking film was John Badham. He would continue the technology theme in a later work, ‘Short Circuit’ about an anthropomorphic robot which also feature one of the stars here, Ally Sheedy. He went on to a lot of episodic television including ‘Heroes’ and ‘The Shield’. This is a man who knows how to build suspense. He eases the audience in with innocent scenes of a girl visiting a classmate in his bedroom. He is surrounded by computers and uses them to change a bad grade she recently received. He then surfs the telephone networks looking for game code and stumbles upon a computer used in the Department of Defense. It is this slow build that makes the movie work so well. It is also the reason that now, so many years after the fact and with so many technological advancements, the film remains one of the best thrillers around. If it had depended on the technology the movie would be laughable today. Most of us have more computing power in our cell phones than shown here. What matters in the way Bedlam directs this film is the human drama. There is a kid who has gotten himself in to trouble with dire global consequences.
Another reason that makes this movie so representative of the time it was made is the cold war. Back in 1983 most Americans feared the Soviet Union. The Russians held beliefs that were diametrically opposed to the freedom and commerce we hold dear. It may not have been as bad as it was in its height during the fifties but in 1983 this was still a major concern. Again, the reason for the emergency is not as important as the way it unfolds here. Remember this paranoia also explains a major plot point, the computer being able to launch nuclear missiles. During that time it was generally believed that human reaction times were insufficient to launch a counter attack. Automation was vital to winning a nuclear war, as if that was even possible. This was considered in many cold war classic movies like ‘Fail Safe’ and ‘Dr.Strangelove’. Now, the dread and paranoia is still with the public although shifted to terrorism. The amazing thing about this film is the way it balances being a time capsule if 1983 with fundamentally human emotions and reactions. This is a timeless classic even if the kids today laugh at parts of it. If you are watching with your kids take a look at them when it shows a 300 baud acoustic modem. Most of them will not even remember a phone with a cord and handset let alone a modem connected to the phone line.
The anniversary release by Fox Home Entertainment seems to be pretty much the same audio and video transfer as the original DVD. The colors could have been brighter but the non-anamorphic video holds up better than most of us over the last 25 years. The audio was remixed to Dolby 5.1 and typical of those early releases the channel separation is not that great. There is an audio commentary track with John Badham, Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. New to this edition is a second disc for extras. Overall this is well worth getting again for the true fan and should be a part of every single collection.