WarGames is a 1983 American Cold War science fiction film written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes and directed by John Badham.
The film stars Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, and Ally Sheedy.
The film follows David Lightman (Broderick), a young hacker who unwittingly accesses War Operation Plan Response (WOPR), a United States military supercomputer originally programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. Lightman gets WOPR to run a nuclear war simulation, believing it to be a computer game. The computer, now tied into the nuclear weapons control system and unable to tell the difference between simulation and reality, attempts to start World War III.
A sequel, WarGames: The Dead Code, was released direct-to-video in 2008.
During a surprise drill of a nuclear attack, many United States Air Force Strategic Missile Wing controllers prove unwilling to turn the key required to launch a missile strike. Such refusals convince John McKittrick and other systems engineers at NORAD that missile launch control centres must be automated, without human intervention. Control is given to a NORAD supercomputer known as WOPR, programmed to continuously run war simulations and learn over time.
David Lightman, a bright but unmotivated Seattle high school student and hacker, uses his IMSAI 8080 computer to break into the school district’s computer system and change his grades. He does the same for his friend and classmate Jennifer Mack. Later, while war dialling numbers in Sunnyvale, California, to find a computer game company, he connects with a system that does not identify itself. Asking for games, he finds a list that starts with chess, checkers, backgammon, and poker, as well as titles such as “Theaterwide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare” and “Global Thermonuclear War”, but cannot proceed further. Two hacker friends explain the concept of a backdoor password and suggest tracking down the Falken referenced in “Falken’s Maze”, the first game listed. David discovers that Stephen Falken was an early artificial-intelligence researcher, and Jennifer guesses correctly that Falken’s dead son’s name (Joshua) is the password.
David does not know that the Sunnyvale phone number connects to WOPR at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. He starts a game of Global Thermonuclear War, playing as the Soviet Union and starts targeting American cities. The computer starts a simulation that briefly convinces the military personnel at NORAD that actual Soviet nuclear missiles are inbound. While they defuse the situation, WOPR nonetheless continues the simulation to trigger the scenario and win the game, as it does not understand the difference between reality and simulation. It continuously feeds false data such as Soviet bomber incursions and submarine deployments to NORAD, pushing them into increasing the DEFCON level and toward a retaliation that will start World War III.
David learns the true nature of his actions from a news broadcast, and FBI special agents arrest him and take him to NORAD. He realises that WOPR is behind the NORAD alerts, but because he fails to convince McKittrick, he faces espionage charges. David escapes NORAD by joining a tourist group, and with Jennifer’s help, travels to the Oregon island where Falken lives. David and Jennifer find that Falken has become despondent and believes that nuclear war is inevitable, and that it is as futile as a game of tic-tac-toe between two experienced players. The teenagers convince Falken that he should return to NORAD to stop WOPR.
WOPR stages a massive Soviet first strike with hundreds of missiles, submarines, and bombers. Believing the attack to be genuine, NORAD prepares to retaliate. Falken, David, and Jennifer convince military officials to cancel the second strike and ride out the attack. WOPR tries to launch the missiles itself using a brute-force attack to obtain the password. Without humans in the control centres as a safeguard, the computer will trigger a mass launch. All attempts to log in and order WOPR to cancel the countdown fail. Disconnecting the computer is discussed and dismissed, as a failsafe will launch all weapons if the computer is disabled.
Falken and David direct the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself. This results in a long string of draws, forcing the computer to learn the concept of futility and no-win scenarios. WOPR obtains the password for the missiles, but before launching, it cycles through all the nuclear war scenarios it has devised, finding that they all result in draws as well. Having discovered the concept of mutual assured destruction (“WINNER: NONE”), the computer tells Falken that it has concluded that nuclear war is “a strange game” in which “the only winning move is not to play.” WOPR relinquishes control of NORAD and the missiles and offers to play “a nice game of chess.”
- Matthew Broderick as David Lightman.
- Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick.
- John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken a.k.a. Robert Hume and the voice of Joshua/WOPR.
- Ally Sheedy as Jennifer Mack.
- Barry Corbin as General Jack Beringer.
- Juanin Clay as Patricia Healy.
- Dennis Lipscomb as Watson.
- Joe Dorsey as Col. Joe Conley.
- Michael Ensign as Beringer’s assistant.
- William Bogert as Mr. Lightman.
- Susan Davis as Mrs. Lightman.
- Irving Metzman as Richter.
- John Spencer as Capt. Jerry Lawson.
- Michael Madsen as Lt. Steve Phelps.
- Alan Blumenfeld as Mr. Liggett.
- Maury Chaykin as Jim Sting.
- Eddie Deezen as Malvin.
- Art LaFleur as Guard (Sgt. Ginzberg).
- Stack Pierce as Airman.
- Stephen Lee as Sgt. Schneider.
- Jesse Goins as Sergeant.
- James Ackerman as Joshua Falken.
- James Tolkan as FBI Agent George Wigan.
- The film was a box-office success, costing $12 million and grossing $79 million, after five months, in the United States and Canada.
- The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): John Badham.
- Producer(s): Leonard Goldberg, Richard Hashimoto, Harold Schneider, and Bruce McNall.
- Writer(s): Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes.
- Music: Arthur B. Rubinstein.
- Cinematography: William A. Fraker.
- Editor(s): Tom Rolf.
- Production: United Artists and Sherwood Productions.
- Distributor(s): MGM/UA Entertainment Company.
- Release Date: 07 May 1983 (Cannes International Film Festival) and 03 June 1983 (US general release).
- Running time: 114 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.