September 22, 2022 by Lucian Mogosanu

A strange game.
The only winning move is
Not to play.

How about a nice game of chess?

WarGames is by and large a mediocre movie by a second-grade director1, employing a mixed bunch2 into performing a cabbage of a script. However, similarly to other films reviewed on this blog, it has a few excellent moments, which must necessarily be cut from the whole in order for the thing to make any sense.

The main theme brought forth is that of the costs, both material and intellectual, of maintaining automated machinery in a military environment. It is also the first theme to be displayed in a chronological order, but it is intertwined with another, which gets much less screen time but is at least as fundamental. Thus we will make a brief detour.

David Lightman is the proverbial "nerdy-looking kid in a white shirt" approached from the opposite angle: he's a smart kid living in a social environment undergoing a slow decay, having to cope with the latter's inevitable destructuring. He is indeed labeled, I quote, an "underachiever, alienated from his parents", but this description says more about his society than about him -- good thing he has a sane girl close by.

The same David Lightman doesn't care too much for school. Maybe that's because they don't teach anything interesting in school anymore, or maybe because he's misguided -- he doesn't pay attention to some dumbed down material in his biology class, but then later he goes on to independently perform actual research on subjects which the film's authors dumb down for the viewer ("computers that learn from their mistakes"!), which I find implausible, to say the least. This again is rather social commentary about the unfuture of education, serving perhaps as cheap propaganda on the lines of "hey, look, computers are gonna make our kids smarter than school". The underlying thread here is that decision-makers didn't dumb down education in order to "leave no child behind", or whatever; they dumbed it down because it was getting increasingly expensive to cannibalize it over whatever forms of "educational" mechanisms were instituted in the last four decades3, be they tubes or interwebs or what have you.

This brings us back to the premise, namely that a couple of guys properly (they said) trained to do a job, were unable to carry out their duty... why, exactly? due to pressure? holding the fate of humanity in their hands? or what is it? Regardless, the machines placed in their stead can easily two-plus-two when instructed, and they won't even ask for food. Moving the problem in the domain of automation changes the game altogether on multiple planes: on one hand one will now have to deal with obnoxious engineers, that is to say, self-proclaimed technocrats, who will consistently get it wrong, either intentionally, through backdoors4, or otherwise unintentionally through simple incompetence. On the other hand however, once working automation is deployed in the field, everyone will have to step up the game in this direction, since the fabled human resource that acts so swiftly is simply too expensive and infeasible to "teach from mistakes" in a short amount of time5. So NORAD fucks up and a kid puts in motion what seems to be the inevitable beginning of the end, and by the time they manage to put a stop to it, the general swears he's never going to make use of 'em electronic brains on his turf anymore. Except... that's what they eventually did, didn't they? Mechanism by now seems to have become entirely embedded in the sheer force of history itself, regardless of how much it destroys, regardless of how much it dehumanizes.

Viewed from 2022, the folks over at NORAD seem like a satire of what would constitute a military man. By 2022 they probably even started acting this way, which makes the idiotic parts all the more funny to watch. At the same time, the technical consultancy of the time was spot-on: indeed, in the 1980s one could simply walk a list of telephone numbers automatically by having the computer search for a dial tone; the public telephone hacking, the door code hacking, even the social engineering is so properly done that one'd better pay special attention to the movie rather than spend his time with the endless piles of bureaucratic material that they so impudently call "security training". Unfortunately I can't say the same for John Wood's role, which draws out that "lone fatalist hermit" trope which is simply indigestible. "Extinction" my ass: as clearly observed, humans can and will easily drive themselves back into the stone age through isolation, while "global thermonuclear war" will have exhausted itself before even beginning, through its mere uselessness.

Overall the plot seemed all over the place and full of artificial devices, while the artistic quality of the picture is stunning for its time, especially the mountain shots. And that's about it, there's really nothing else there.

  1. John Badham, who also did: Dracula, Short Circuit, Drop Zone and some other titles, most of them probably worse; perhaps not on account of my not having heard of them until today, and most likely not in comparison to the goop they serve today on Netflix. Still, WarGames didn't leave me asking for more, so... feel free to check out his other works yourself. 

  2. Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood, Barry Corbin, Dabney Coleman. 

  3. Meanwhile sure, whatever intellectual resources are left are to be concentrated in the hands of a few. 

  4. Sure, their bosses will even ask them to introduce those backdoors, in the NOBUS style. 

  5. In case you were wondering why Ukraine hasn't so far lost the ongoing "military operation", or the first phase thereof... well, I'm no expert, but I'm sure the "supplies" were of much help. 

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