(director: John Badham; screenwriters: from the story by William A. Fraker & Walon Green/Lawrence Lasker/Walter Parkes; cinematographer: William A. Fraker; editors: Michael Ripps/Tom Rolf; music: Arthur B. Rubinstein; cast: Matthew Broderick (David Lightman), Dabney Coleman (Dr. John McKittrick), John Wood (Stephen Falken), Ally Sheedy (Jennifer Mack), Barry Corbin (General Beringer), Juanin Clay (Pat Healy), Kent Williams (Arthur Cabot), Dennis Lipscomb (Lyle Watson), Irving Metzman (Richter), William Bogert (Mr. Lightman), Susan Davis (Mrs. Lightman), James Tolkan (FBI Agent Nigan); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Leonard Goldberg/Harold Schneider; United Artists; 1983)
“One of the early films to warn about the dangers of hackers and the possibilities of computers controlling our lives.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the early films to warn about the dangers of hackers and the possibilities of computers controlling our lives. John Badham (“Stakeout”/”Short Circuit”/”American Flyers”), who was brought in to replace director Martin Brest after twelve days of shooting, slickly tells of a smart but underachieving geeky affluent middle-class smart-aleck computer whiz, the 17-year-old Seattle high school student, David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). He is first seen impressing his pretty classmate Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy) by changing both their failing biology marks after hacking into the school system’s computer and then in his search to steal some new video games taps into a program that allows him to play the game called “Global Thermonuclear War.” This misdeed alerts the commanders at NORAD, the country’s missile-defense system, of a nuclear war alert as the United States Air Force’s supersecret supercomputer WOPR advises a retaliatory strike. David’s innocent action, of being the Soviet Union in this game and setting up Las Vegas and Seattle to be attacked, brings the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of WW III.
The film is edgy in its first half, but in its second half it becomes short-circuited with a silly side story of an adventurous escape and an annoyingly uncomfortable barrage of heavy-handed messages that somehow relates not winning in Tick-Tack-Toe with nuclear war. Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes questioned man’s reliance on machines for protection, as they deployed as many contrived situations as possible to bring home their message about out-of-control artificial intelligence and in the process ruin any chance for real suspense.
The film’s meltdown occurs when David is arrested by the FBI and brought to NORAD headquarters and is questioned by their computer-security scientist expert Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman), and then escapes to bring back from a remote Oregon island the game’s fuzzy-headed intellectual creator, Stephen Falken (John Wood). With all the experts now in place at NORAD, including the gung-ho Air Force right-wing commander of the base, the short-fused tobacco chewing General Beringer (Barry Corbin), David precedes to teach WOPR that the only way to win this dangerous game is not to play.
It was released when Pac-Man fever was at its height and it proved to be a popular film, thanks largely to teens, that received mostly good reviews. The 21-year-old Broderick looks like a teenager and is convincing as a kid who lives and dies by the power of the home computer. The film is at its best when it shows even our most advanced security systems for computers might not be enough to deal with how susceptible they are to hackers. If it stayed with that story and didn’t try to go over-the-top with an absurd adventure scenario and a rather comical climax, the paranoid thriller would have been more credible.
REVIEWED ON 2/10/2008 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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