How about a nice game of guess how symmetrical WarGames is? The answer is quite simple: It’s completely symmetrical.
I grew up loving this movie, so I feel like it’s a privilege to share just how awesome this movie is. Not only is it one of the best Cold War-themed movies of all time, but it is a flawless example of Cinematic Chiasmus.
So let’s turn our keys and launch what promises to be an explosive adventure through the astonishing symmetry of the 1983 classic WarGames.
As is customary, we’ll begin by listing the film’s events in order to show how the two halves correlate:
A. A commanding officer fails to launch his nuclear missiles during a surprise drill
B. Presidential advisers enter NORAD
C. WOPR/Joshua is introduced as a benign computer running “war games”
D. David Lightman gets caught by his teacher and sent to the principal
E. David mocks Jennifer Mack’s low grades in school
F. The commanding officer loses his faith in humanity
G. David dials hundreds of phone numbers to hack into Protovision
H. David is shocked by the game titles that appear on his computer screen
I. David studies all he can about WOPR inventor Stephen Falken
J. Jennifer surprises David in his bedroom, and they meet Joshua
K. David is horrified to learn that he almost instigated World War III
L. David gets called by Jennifer and then Joshua
M. David gets arrested and taken to NORAD
N. McKittrick takes David out of the infirmary
O. David learns Joshua’s plans and discovers Falken is alive
O. David attempts to warn NORAD officials, but they won’t listen
N. David breaks out of the infirmary
M. David escapes from NORAD
L. David attempts to call Falken and then calls Jennifer
K. Joshua makes the U.S. believe the Soviets are provoking conflict
J. Jennifer surprises David at the airport, and they talk about Joshua
I. David and Jennifer meet Falken
H. General Beringer is shocked when two Soviet fighters disappear from his computer screen
G. Falken refuses to make one simple phone call to prevent World War III
F. Falken’s faith in humanity is restored
E. Jennifer mocks David’s inability to swim
D. David and Jennifer get caught by Falken and flown to NORAD
C. Joshua leads the U.S. to believe World War III has actually begun
B. David, Jennifer, and Falken enter NORAD
A. Joshua decides not to launch America’s nuclear missiles
And now we will go into greater detail on each of these points, from A to O, and show the intricacies of their similarities.
A. Nuclear Scare
WarGames begins and ends with intense World War III scenarios. At the beginning, a couple of men arrive at a nuclear facility and receive what they believe to be a legitimate order to launch their nuclear missiles. The junior officer is scared at first, but he does his duty. His commanding officer begins to panic and refuses to turn his launch key, despite his subordinate aiming a gun at him. It turns out that the whole thing was a test.
At the end, General Beringer is convinced not to launch a counterstrike against the Soviet Union during what turns out to be a fake Soviet nuclear strike. Then the supercomputer WOPR/Joshua is also convinced not to fire its nuclear missiles, even though he’s essentially holding a gun to the head of all of humanity.
B. Entering NORAD
A couple of presidential advisers fly to NORAD via helicopter and then drive in a vehicle down a tunnel to the main entrance where a woman is waiting to lead them through a huge door before it closes.
David Lightman, Jennifer Mack, and Professor Stephen Falken also fly in a helicopter part of the way to NORAD. They drive the rest of the way until their vehicle crashes just outside the tunnel. They’re forced to run down the tunnel where the same woman frantically awaits their arrival, helping them barely make it inside before the huge door seals shut.
C. Telling a Whopper
McKittrick explains to the presidential advisers that WOPR is a supercomputer that is an expert at playing war games and making strategic decisions to try to win World War III. The advisers decide to suggest the president replace the men in the silos with WOPR, and McKittrick says, “You won’t regret this.”
They definitely regret their decision when WOPR makes General Beringer believe the Soviets have launched their nuclear missiles at the U.S. when that is not the case at all. He gets them to go to Defcon 1 and play out an end-of-the-world simulation in the real world.
D. David Gets Caught
David is a high school student who antagonizes his Biology teacher and gets sent to the principal’s office. However, this turns out to be a good thing because he discovers the password to the school’s computer system, which he plans to use to give himself a passing grade in Biology.
Later, David and his friend Jennifer get ambushed by an Army helicopter, which they believe was sent by Falken to capture them. However, they soon discover that Falken himself is piloting the helicopter, and he’s going to bring them to NORAD to save the world.
E. David and Jennifer Mock Each Other
After changing his Biology grade, David looks at Jennifer’s grades. He mocks her, saying, “How could anybody get a D in Home Ec?” because it seems like such an easy class. She gets upset with him and leaves unhappily. But he still gives her an A in Biology because he likes her.
After struggling in vain to find a boat to escape Falken’s island, David admits to Jennifer that he can’t swim. She mocks him, saying, “What kind of an @$% grows up in Seattle and doesn’t even learn how to swim?” He gets upset, but they soon reconcile and admit their feelings for each other.
F. Faith in Humanity Lost and Restored
The commanding officer who failed the nuclear test at the beginning clears out his gear from the nuclear facility. As he’s leaving, he stops and looks on in dismay as WOPR is installed at the computer terminal. He shakes his head, clearly worried about the future of humanity with an unfeeling computer in control.
In a quiet moment of reflection, Falken comes back down the stairs he had just climbed in his home and stares off in the distance. He’s thinking about David’s pointed question, “What was the last thing you cared about?” and realizing that he still does have something to live for. He doesn’t want to let humanity perish.
G. Dialing Numbers
I like the contrast here. David hears about new games being developed by a company called Protovision, so he tells his computer to dial every phone number in the vicinity of Protovision’s headquarters in order to break in and play those games.
Later, David tells Falken about how his supercomputer (nicknamed Joshua) is playing a war game that is going to destroy humanity. But Falken refuses to make a single phone call to NORAD to explain the situation and stop them from finishing this deadly game.
H. Shocking Appearances and Disappearances
David and Jennifer stumble upon WOPR and the computer system refuses to identify itself. Eventually, David gets it to list its games, which start with benign games like Chess, Hearts, and Poker but end with Fighter Combat, Desert Warfare, and the showstopper, Global Thermonuclear War. David is disturbed by the unexpected appearance of these military “games.”
Two unidentified Soviet bombers show up on radar and NORAD scrambles two of their own jets to get visual confirmation. However, as the pilots get close they report that there’s nothing there. General Beringer is puzzling through that discrepancy when suddenly the two Soviet bombers disappear from his computer screen. He is left confused by the implication of their unexpected disappearance.
I. Going Through Falken’s Maze
David gets on the trail of the creator of WOPR, Stephen Falken. He studies everything he can about Falken to try to find his backdoor password and get into his game system, but all he finds are dead ends, especially when he learns that Falken is dead.
It turns out that Falken faked his own death, and David and Jennifer track him down on his private island. He refuses to listen to them at first, but then David finds a way to penetrate his defenses by mentioning his son, Joshua.
J. “Shall We Play a Game?”
Jennifer catches David by surprise in his bedroom and the two talk about David’s research on Falken. Then David stumbles upon Falken’s password into WOPR, which is “Joshua.” David and Jennifer start playing what they believe to be an elaborate game with the computer system, but it turns out that the computer is playing the game for real in the war room at NORAD.
Later, Jennifer unexpectedly shows up at an Oregon airport where David just arrived. David tells her all about the seriousness of the situation they created when they started playing the game with Joshua, and how it could lead to the end of the world.
K. Provoking Conflict
David is stunned when he sees a news report about a computer malfunction at NORAD that almost led to nuclear war. He realizes that that was a result of his game with Joshua.
General Beringer and his men at NORAD get reports of Soviet submarines approaching the U.S. and heightening tensions. They fail to realize that Joshua is playing a game and attempting to manipulate them into instigating a nuclear war.
L. David’s Calls
After David gets shocked by the news report, he receives two calls. First, Jennifer calls him and tells him to just lay low and he won’t get into trouble. Then Joshua calls him and tells him that the game is still going on, and he expects to win by provoking the U.S. to launch its nuclear missiles. Eventually, David disconnects his phone to stop Joshua from calling.
After David breaks out of NORAD, he makes two calls. First, he attempts to call Falken to warn him about what Joshua has planned, but that call fails to go through because Falken doesn’t have a phone. Then he calls Jennifer and asks her for a favor to help him meet Falken face to face.
M. Arrest and Escape
The FBI tracks David down and arrests him while he’s all alone outside a 7-Eleven. They then drive him to NORAD in the back of a car.
Later, David outwits his captors and walks out of NORAD surrounded by a group of tourists. He is driven away from NORAD in the back of a tour bus.
N. David Leaves the Infirmary
McKittrick comes to the infirmary where David is being temporarily held and escorts David out for a look at the main floor of NORAD. They end up alone in McKittrick’s office.
David gets unceremoniously pushed back into the infirmary, but he manages to escape using some technical wizardry. He climbs alone through the bowels of NORAD and ends up back on the main floor.
O. Dire Warning
The turning point of the film comes when David learns that Falken is still alive, but he can’t get anyone to listen to him. McKittrick gets called away by an emergency and leaves David alone in his office. While there, David uses McKittrick’s computer to talk to Joshua and he discovers the death toll and damage that Joshua estimates he will cause. Joshua then reveals Falken’s classified address in Oregon to David.
McKittrick’s secretary informs the heads of security that David is doing something with the computer in McKittrick’s office. They come and forcefully remove David from the office. He tries to warn McKittrick, General Beringer, and others about what Joshua has planned and that all they have to do is call Falken, but no one listens to him.
As Easy as Tic-Tac-Toe
In a movie full of brilliant ideas, I think WarGames’ use of Tic-Tac-Toe as a metaphor for the futility of a nuclear war is its best. When equally matched powers with mutually assured destruction meet, “The only winning move is not to play.”
By setting up the movie’s story in a way that is perfectly symmetrical, the filmmakers have done something incredible where they highlight the themes of equally matched opponents, the importance of fighting to survive rather than giving up on humanity, cherishing life even in the face of tragic death, and more.
Its technology may be dated, but WarGames will remain a relevant film as long as the fear of catastrophic war and intelligent machines is with us. What a “strange game,” indeed.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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