From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Machines Gone Bad

There are times when I am still impressed by the changes I've seen in technology during my lifetime. When I was a kid, I had an old Commodore 64 computer. Back then I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I remember the dinky little games I used to play on it. Having to switch 5 1/4" floppies to get to the next level (that was the size right? Been so long, I barely remember). Now computers have gotten so advanced that the laptop I am writing this on has more power and can do more things than the ones that powered the Apollo rockets I think.

And yet the notion that computers are limited by their inability to reason was something that lay at the core of John Badham's WarGames. Coupled with lingering Cold War fears of the omnipresent Soviet threat, Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes created a movie that still has some resonance today.

A drill measuring human response when ordered to execute a nuclear launch demonstrates that some soldiers would be reluctant to do so even in the face of a first strike by a foreign power. After some heated debate, Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) convinces some Presidential advisors that human beings need to be taken "out of the loop". Computerized monitors are installed in missile silos where human beings once made the decision to launch. This is done against the wishes of NORAD C.O. General Jack Beringer (Barry Corbin).

All monitors are connected to a central computer called the WOPR (War Operations Planning and Response). The WOPR is constantly running simulations of all conceivable military engagement patterns to determine which strategic launch decisions would be most beneficial and efficient for the US. The theory is that removing the human element might eventually save lives.

Enter David Lightman (Matthew Broderick in his second film role, and first as a star). Lightman is a high school computer buff. One of the first hackers, he hopes to impress a girl he likes (Ally Sheedy, also in her second film) by showing her how he can adjust their grades in school by breaking into the schools computer system. On a later visit, he shows Jennifer how he has his computer programmed to dial random numbers in the hopes of connecting to a computer software company. He hopes to sneak a peak at game software they have slated for release later in the year. What he inadvertently finds is a back door into the WOPR's simulation system. And when he thinks he and Jennifer are playing a "game" titled "Global Thermonuclear War", he has no idea that he may be kicking off World War III for real.

The technological aspects of the film are fairly dated. I had to laugh when I saw Lightman settling the handset of his phone into the cradle of an old 1200 baud modem. One shudders to think what Lightman might have done on the modern internet. In the same way, my mind reels when he grabs an 8" floppy drive and I think about how many of those would fit onto one CD-ROM today. But the question of whether the human element should be removed from the decision making process that determines whether 20 million people live or die is still relevant. As computers have become more powerful, and the operating systems more complex, one has to wonder about the wisdom of giving more control over to computers and automation. In only takes one email opened in Microsoft Outlook these days to bring an entire company's productivity to a screeching halt.

Broderick as Lightman is very believable as a forefather to today's techie. His character is motivated less by an interest in causing mischief and more by an insatiable desire to learn more and test the limits of his abilities. Breaking into the WOPR is a challenge for him. It is a means by which he can measure how much he knows about the software and hardware. It's obvious from a scene showing the troubles he has in school that he has a great deal of intelligence. The mental muscles he has are simply not being tested by those he "learns" from in school.

Sheedy's character of Jennifer doesn't get much in the way of screen time. She's mostly there to give Broderick something to draw his attention away from the machine, if only for a little while. One of the best secondary characters in the film is Professor Stephen Falken (John Wood). Falken is the person who with McKittrick helped give the WOPR its "intelligence".

Though not a true A.I. as we think of it today, this intelligence within the WOPR does become a third character. It is given a voice via a modulator that Lightman runs from his computer. And it has a name a personality that were bestowed on it by Falken in the programming: that of his late son Joshua. It's through this mechanical voice that the audience gets to feel some of the menace from the machine. The fact the voice is completely devoid of emotion makes it all the more frightening to think that this unfeeling device may decide whether the population of a city lives or dies. Falken's frustration at not being able to imbue Joshua with any sort of understanding of the notion of futility in respect to nuclear war makes the threat more real. Falken is very much a father struggling to make his "son" learn.

The ending is a bit contrived and falls back onto some standard Hollywood "save the day" tropes. But the whole enterprise is still very entertaining and fun to watch. This film was one of the staples of my youth. It surprised me at how much of it is still very entertaining and holds up so well. I also find it interesting to see how the concept of Joshua plays out on screen. Joshua is very much the great grandfather of Skynet that comes into existence in The Terminator the following year. The difference in the capabilities of the two systems I think reflects just how quickly our concept of the power of computers had changed just in a year or two. It would mirror the actual changes in the technology itself.

If Skynet could be thought of as the grandson of the WOPR, tomorrow we'll be looking at a movie that feature what could be Skynet's cousin. It also was a film that completely redefined how action movies could be shot. So tune in tomorrow as we look at the question of "What is The Matrix?"