Bob Balaban's dark comic horror about a young boy suspecting his suburban parents to be cannibals
On Film4: 7 Dec 12:40AM
The young Matthew Broderick stars in a computer-related nuclear thriller that's as effective as it is appallingly dated..
WarGames harks back not only to a different decade but to a different age: one in which "modem" was among the most modern of terms and any computer with serious brain power was the size of the average family car.
John Badham's taut thriller is a reminder that the 80s was a technological stone age as well as the time of big hair. But while it might leave you feeling smug about how far we've come, WarGames is sufficiently engaging and tense to seem frightening rather than funny. That it is such a good film is made more amazing still by the fact it stars almost nobody famous and original director Martin Brest (the man responsible for Gigli) was fired midway through shooting.
Looking pretty much the way he looks today, Matthew Broderick was just 21 and a veteran of only one feature film when he was cast as 16-year-old computer nerd David Lightman. When David accidentally hacks into a government super-computer, he nearly sparks off a nuclear war. Naturally, the American military are pretty concerned about this. But they're even more concerned when said system, codename WOPR, finds itself unable to distinguish between the war-game David wanted to play and the real thing.
Sharply scripted by Walter F Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (who also penned hacker fest Sneakers), WarGames might be aimed primarily at young boys but it never for a moment excludes either girls or adults - it's as if Badham realised that the machines at the heart of his story could benefit all mankind, and not just the members who were shy around the opposite sex. The unstarry cast also helps keep attention focused on the frankly terrifying story. Both Broderick and love interest Ally Sheedy are very natural while, among the adults, Dabney Coleman, Barry Corbin and John Wood excel as military top brass, bonkers General and enigmatic scientist respectively. And be sure to keep an eye out for a young Michael Madsen as one of the guys in the silo in the opening scene.
Admittedly, there's none of the bleakness and little of the black comedy of, say, Dr Strangelove. But compare WarGames with much of what passes for teen entertainment today and you wish that more filmmakers would download its winning formula.
Time might not have been kind to the look of WarGames, but with nuclear war still a very real threat, the picture's ability to manufacture suspense remains undimmed.
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