Still featuring the war room set from WarGames, Universal 1983

Welcome to Crystal Palace

Games On Film III: WarGames - Is This a Game Or Is It Real?

(Page 1 of 2)
United Artists, 1983

GREETINGS PROFESSOR FALKEN

Poster for WarGames, a video game themed movie by United Artists 1983

Poster for WarGames

At 8:50am on November 9, 1979, the warning system at NORAD Command Post, part of a huge complex hollowed out of the 9000-foot-tall, solid granite Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado lights up like a Christmas tree. Signals that indicate a large-scale nuclear attack from Soviet Russia begin to fill screens, and are relayed to duty commanders at Strategic Air Command and the Pentagon. Looking over the data, military personnel consider the sub-based attack profile highly plausible. Over the next six minutes the American military complex goes into high alert: Air Force Interceptors are scrambled to protect the U.S. from Soviet bombers, ICBM missiles are warmed up in their silos, and FAA air traffic controllers enact SCATANA (Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids) operations which clear the airspace of civilian traffic in some areas of the U.S.. Even the President’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post (Doomsday plane) takes aloft, although without the President actually aboard. For these six minutes the fate of the world hangs in the balance, until NORAD is eventually able to confirm through the PAVE PAWS early warning radar system that no actual missiles are being detected, along with satellite data confirmation. After the alert is cancelled, it is eventually determined that a technician at NORAD had loaded a test tape into a computer, but had failed to take the proper precautions to prevent this training data from being issued to the warning system. An off-site testing facility is constructed for future war games testing.

Slowly the script evolves into the story of an alienated hacker teen who infiltrates, originally, a space-based laser defense system.

 

It is incidents like this, and numerous other human and technical mishaps involving the nuclear arsenal of the major superpowers, that sets the stage for two novice scriptwriters named Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker to write a movie script in 1979, titled The Genius. It starts as the germ of an idea from Lasker of a story about an alienated genius kid and his mentor, a dying scientist inspired by real-life astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Discussing it with former college roommate Parkes, it turns out that he has had a similar inspiration. Combining their ideas, they find support for the project from producer Leonard Goldberg of Universal Studios, and so they continue fleshing out the story. During their research, they interview hackers at different schools around the U.S., including UCLA. There, they even visit a student at home, while he shows them how to hack into the UCLA mainframe. They also talk with computer security experts , such as Willis Ware of the RAND Corporation, a government think tank. They also tap members of the Stanford Research Group or SRI, such as long-time computer research engineer Donn Parker, as well as Peter Schwartz. SRI is a non-profit scientific research institute involved in running nuclear war simulations for the government. It is Schwartz who gives a lead to the screenwriters about the military’s interest in videogames and the possible applications of them in training and combat. Atari’s conversion of Ed Rotberg’s popular Battlezone arcade game into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle trainer for the U.S. Military could have been another connection. One piece of the puzzle they do read about is the SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan. This is basically an ever-refined playbook of how the U.S. would deploy nuclear weapons, with various attack options offered, depending on the circumstances at play.

Slowly the script evolves into the story of an alienated hacker teen who infiltrates, originally, a space-based laser defense system. Through later scripts, this evolves into the war plans computer at NORAD, setting things in motion towards nuclear Armageddon, with the dying now-computer scientist mentor overcoming his bitterness with the world to help the young man save it.

 

Born from the fallout of the first nuclear bomb tests conducted by the Soviets soon after WWII, as well as the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, NORAD or North American Aerospace Defense Command is a joint defensive organization between the U.S. and Canada, tasked to track all man-made objects in Earth space, as well as to detect any airborne attack against North America. Drilled nearly a mile into the solid granite core of Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado, NORAD HQ can withstand an up to 30 megaton nuclear blast, within 2 kilometers of the site. With NORAD HQ playing a prominent part in their story, Lasker and Parkes touch base with the Air Force Los Angeles Public Affairs Office to set up a research trip. On September 15, 1980 this trip is facilitated by Lt. Col. Duncan Wilmore, the Air Force Public Affairs Officer in LA. The two screenwriters travel to NORAD Defence Command at Cheyenne Mountain incognito, ostensibly as part of a VIP tour of Los Angeles civic leaders. At the end of their tour of the facility, they are apprehended by General James V. Hartinger, NORAD Commander in Chief, a rambunctious type who’s aware of their intentions and leads them off to the base bar to have a drink and discuss the script. The two writers win the heart of Hartinger by emphasizing the aspect of their story about the need for human control of the nuclear arsenal, rather than putting it under computer control, something they had received hints of happening during their research. The General enthusiastically agrees and relays to them that contractors and technical experts are indeed trying to take the decision making process for nuclear retaliation out of human hands. “I sleep pretty well knowing I’m in charge”, he tells the two scriptwriters, a phrase that would echo through to his eventual equivalent in the finished film. Lasker and Parkes also put their method of infiltrating NORAD via a tour group into the film, only this time as a way for Lightman to exit the facility unnoticed.

Into Production

Lasker and Parkes take about a year to finish the first draft of the script, and present it to Goldberg. Universal submits the script to the Air Force LA office for comments in June of 1981. Five weeks later, co-operation from the Pentagon slams shut, with criticism from the military mostly along the lines that the entire film is based on a “false premise” that could never possibly happen. As the scope of the script increases, requiring more scenes inside the NORAD HQ and thus sets needed to portray the complex, Universal insists that the budget for the film must be below $8 million.  This is too low of a figure for producer Goldberg, and he walks away from the studio with Lasker and Parkes in tow. They and the movie project eventually end up at United Artists, where subsequent money problems at the studio put the film into turnaround multiple times.

Still featuring John Wood in WarGames, a video game themed movie by MGM/UA 1983

John Wood as Stephen Falken

 

The budget is eventually pegged at 12 million dollars, and a friend of Lasker, Martin Brest, is attached as director. Brest is best known up to that point for having directed the George Burns vehicle Going in Style. After multiple auditions, 21 year-old unknown Matthew Broderick is cast as WarGames hacker David Lightman, mostly on the strength of dailies from his first film, Max Dugan Returns. Broderick’s wonderful performance as Lightman is all the more remarkable considering that, while shooting the film, his father is in NYC dying from cancer; his son takes all his free time from shooting to travel back and stay by his father’s bedside. To help him portray a video game whizkid, about a month before shooting starts Broderick is supplied with both a Galaga and Galaxian arcade game for his apartment, to practise on in his free time. WarGames is also Ally Sheedy’s second movie role, after appearing in Bad Boys with Sean Penn. Known at that time mostly as a TV actress, she gets the part of Lightman’s confidante and girlfriend Jennifer Mack mostly on the effortless chemistry that forms between Broderick and her during readings. Needing an officious prick as McKittrick, the ambitious manager of NORAD’s computer system, producers of course opt for Dabney Coleman. English actor John Wood plays the enigmatic Professor Falken. Falken as written in an early draft of the script was wheelchair bound and suffering from ALS or Lou Gherig’s Disease, a character homage to Stephen Hawking. While under development at Universal, Lasker and Parkes had been in touch with John Lennon to play the role, one that would jive well with Lennon’s pacifism. Lennon’s assassination outside the Dakota apartments in NYC in 1980 puts an end to that possibility. Barry Corbin, of TV show Northern Exposure fame, rounds out the major cast as Gen. Berenger, a character obviously based on the real life commander of NORAD they had met on their visit. There’s also more than a little Curtis LeMay in Corbin’s cigar-chomping performance, LeMay being the hawkish commander of SAC in the 50′s, who advocated a pre-emptive nuclear exchange as U.S. military strategy and provided George C. Scott with his inspiration for his role as General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy classic Dr. Strangelove.

 

Other differences abound in early drafts of the script, such as Lightman and Jennifer, then named Christie, living in New Haven, Connecticut. They are re-located to Seattle in the final film. The company that touts its breakthrough games which spur Lightman to search for them online is originally famous toy-maker Mattel, as opposed to the fictional Protovision in the film as shot. The character that gets the shortest shrift through script editing is probably Jim Sting. In the Genius script, Sting is Captain Crunch, the infamous real-life hacker who’s actual name is John Draper. A lot of parents probably cursed General Mills when kids pulled out the prize from their boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal in 1971, a little plastic bosun whistle, and promptly started blowing it loudly around the house. Draper famously discovered that one could blow the toy whistle into a phone and duplicate the 2600Hz tone that would keep a long distance line open and fool the phone system into thinking that it had been released, thereby granting long distance service for practically free. He shares this information with a couple of garage hackers in California, who go on to build a “blue box”, an electronic version of the bosun whistle that allows complete take-over of the phone network. These two malcontents are named Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak, who make some money selling these boxes before going on to found Apple Computer. In early movie scripts, Sting is a mentor to Lightman, having a couple of scenes where he comes to the young hacker’s assistance. In the finished film, Sting is played by Canadian actor Maury Chaykin, and suffers several indignities: he is relegated to only one scene, stripped of his Captain Crunch hacker bona fides, and is stuck with perennial geek Eddie Deezen, playing a character simply named Malvin, as a sidekick. The actual Draper is hired as a consultant to the film, perhaps responsible for scenes such as the one where Lightman avoids having to put change into a payphone by opening a circuit using a pop-top pull-tab against the metal leads in the handset mic, something I can’t confirm actually works, despite trying several times after seeing WarGames for the first time. As noted previously, Professor Falken undergoes quite a transformation, moving from dying, wheelchair-bound invalid to the bipedally mobile, but demoralized, computer scientist played by Wood.

Change in Direction

John Badham, director of WarGames, a video game themed movie by MGM/UA 1983

WarGames director John Badham, undated photo

In pre-production, director Martin Brest shapes the film more to his own vision, working a nine month polish of the script with hired gun scriptwriter Walon Green, and subsequently wresting the movie from Lasker and Parkes, shutting them out of the project. When he begins principal photography, he immediately draws the ire of the studio with his insular nature, and dark vision of the subject matter. A short two weeks later, he is fired as director, with frequent blowups on set with the producers finally doing him in. In August of 1982, John Badham is brought in to replace him, a director who had cut his teeth in television before shaking the world’s booty with his second feature film: the seminal 1977 disco movie Saturday Night Fever, starring another TV alumnus, John Travolta. Don’t cry to much for Brest, however, as he scores big the year after WarGame’s release with the massive hit comedy Beverly Hills Cop, starring Eddie Murphy. Badham keeps most of Brest’s shot footage, but he also lightens the tone considerably, coaxing his young leads from the stiff zombified attitudes they had assumed under Brest to more loose and engaged, and looking like they’re having fun. Sheedy’s role is greatly expanded from the original draft; instead of vanishing from the last half of the movie, she aids with Lightman’s escape after Cheyenne Mountain and joins him in coaxing Falken to do something about Joshua. Lt. Col. Wilmore, having retired from the military since getting Lasker and Parkes a tour of NORAD, works as technical advisor for the film, as well as appearing as Col. Lem, the computer operator in the war room who gets locked out from standing down the missiles by WOPR towards the end of the film.

The War Room

One other major star of the movie is the NORAD Crystal Palace war room set, the most expensive single set built for a movie up to that point. The original NORAD Cheyenne Mountain facility was completed in 1966 to the tune of $142 million; its Hollywood replica would only run around 1 million dollars. Three large soundstages are utilized by production designer Angelo Graham in order to create NORAD HQ. The centerpiece of the set, mounted high in the air behind rows of computer terminals, are 12 giant screens displaying computer graphics representing various geopolitical locations and situations around the world. The visual effects team, headed by Michael Fink, wishes to avoid the tell-tale shimmy of composite photography added in post-production, so all the visuals shown on the large displays are pre-filmed computer graphics which are then projected onto the custom-made screen material during live filming. Sporting credits from such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Colin Cantwell works with a team creating the computer imagery projected onto the Crystal Palace screens. A HP 9845C colour desktop graphics computer is used to generate the images, although its low-resolution output must be displayed one frame at a time on a high resolution vector monitor for capturing on film recorders custom made by the effects team. While high-res, the vector monitor can not display in colour, so RGB filters must be applied to produce coloured graphics for the screens, resulting in missile tracks and explosions similar to those in Atari’s coin-op armageddon simulator Missile Command. To produce the computer visuals for use in the five weeks of shooting in the war room set, 130,000 feet of printed film is produced in the space of seven months. While filming the scenes in the war room, 12 35mm projectors are synced up with an Apple II computer, each screen showing 12 different graphical presentations.

Photo of the real NORAD Command Center, 2005

The real, slightly more modest NORAD Command Center, 2005

 

As for Lightman’s slightly more modest computer setup in his bedroom, his weapon of choice is a IMSAI 8080 microcomputer, already deeply obsolete by 1983. A line of computers originally introduced in 1975 by IMS Associates, Inc., Lightman’s unit  is provided by the Fisher-Fretias Corporation. They were a service centre for the IMSAI computer that purchased the rights to continue production when IMSAI went out of business in the summer of 1979. They also provide the acoustic coupler modem Lightman uses, again a hopelessly outdated piece of equipment, but makes for a good bit of business on camera. Fitted to Lightman’s rig is a IMSAI FDC-2 dual floppy drive, into which he inserts a startlingly large 8″ floppy disc in one scene. When David and Jennifer eventually get Joshua to speak via external speaker in Lightman’s room, it is not real voice synthesis, but merely actor John Wood’s voice, mechanically treated and dubbed into the scenes. During recording, Wood reads Joshua’s lines backward, to flatten the tone of his voice and interrupt the cadence. Asking why Joshua retains the same ability to speak in the same voice at McKittrick’s terminal at NORAD, or in the NORAD war room itself, is strictly verboten.

A WOPR of a Computer

Joshua, the renegade program that Lightman unwittingly unleashes during his hacking forays into NORAD, resides inside the movie’s equivalent of the SIOP that Lasker and Parkes had researched early in script development, the computer that runs WWIII simulations endlessly, looking for a way to win the game. Badham thinks that SIOP is the world’s most boring acronym, and thus dubs the computer the WOPR, or War Operation Planned Response. Not only does the resemblance to Burger King’s flagship hamburger tickle the director, he also likes the bravado of the sound in the first syllable, in that the U.S. military would WHOP! the opposition if push came to shove. The war games computer is designed by the film’s production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland. Hailing from the U.K., Kirkland bases the look of the WOPR from early mainframe designs dating back to the 40′s and 50′s, as well as from various military furniture designs. It is built of plywood, meaning Gen. Berenger could actually throw it a fair distance. Various blinking lights give it a nicely cinematic look, and there’s even an LED equalizer display appropriated from some stereo equipment. A prototype flat panel LCD display designed by Lowell Nobel is installed into the WOPR prop to display the countdown timer, with Fink squeezed into the back of the cabinet typing characters onto the screen with an Apple II computer as Badham directs him.

 

Direct Hit

After receiving the honour of being the closing selection at the Cannes Film Festival, WarGames is released to theatres on June 3, 1983. It ranks 3rd in cash intake on its opening weekend, behind Psycho II and the blockbuster Return of the Jedi. John Badham has the honour of competing with himself, as his helicopter movie Blue Thunder is also released around the same time. WarGames proves to have legs, and goes on to rake in nearly 80 million in its initial theatrical run, a nice investment on the 12 million it cost to make, and pegging it squarely at #5 for domestic box office gross for 1983. Trading Places, Flashdance and Terms of Endearment round up the top five, along with Jedi. The film also nabs three Oscar nominations at the 1984 Academy AwardsBest Writing, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Cinematography and Best Sound, although it doesn’t take any of the statues home. The company that makes the special super-bright screen material to project the computer graphics on is, however, honoured for their technical achievement.

WarGames also has a strong and lasting impact on computer hacker culture. The release of the movie lights up the imagination of many a computer enthusiast, causing them to run out and buy a computer modem, in order to engage in the wider world of online bulletin board systems(BBS) springing up around the world. It also both defines the idea of a computer hacker in the minds of the public, and indeed influences a darker side of the computer world to flourish, such as the infamous phone phreaking hackers known as the Legion of Doom. Lasker and Parkes would later parlay their knowledge of computer hacking to make the similarly themed Sneakers, released in 1992.

War Games

Despite its success, several companies actually pass on a license for making a video game based on WarGames, afraid that a game based on the annihilation of the planet by nuclear war might be a hard sell. Sensing a big hit, Coleco pays one million dollars to UA/MGM for the licence for their ColecoVision and Adam systems, undaunted by the subject matter. Going a more strategic route and attempting to stay away from sensationalizing nuclear armageddon, the game plays like a slightly more sedate version of arcade game Missile Command, with the player switching from among seven screens spitting up regions of the continental United States, similar to those seen up on the big board in the War Room in the film, shooting down enemy fire with ABM missiles, fighter aircraft, subs and a deadly satellite-based weapons system that floats in and out of sectors on an undulating orbit. The point of the game is to keep the damage to your military and cities to a minimum, holding out for a predetermined amount of time until a cease-fire is reached. As you take damage, your DEFCON status slowly degrades towards level 1. If it remains this way for 60 seconds, a U.S. counter-attack will be launched, the world destroyed, and the game ended. Released in May of 1984, Coleco’s WarGames is backed by heavy promotion and a TV ad campaign. The game debuts on Billboard‘s video game sales chart at #6, rocketing up to #2 soon after. In less than 10 weeks, WarGames moves past 100,000 units, at a retail price of around $30. It is later released for the Atari 400/800 home computer line, and the Commodore 64.

NA NA NA NA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!

It pains me to report that there is a WarGames sequel film of sorts unleashed upon the defenseless viewing public in 2008, called WarGames: The Dead Code, released direct-to-DVD for reasons that become all too obvious about 5 minutes into viewing. It is directed by Stuart Gillard, who can claim such other crowning achievements as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and the Harland Williams vehicle Rocketman on his CV. I subjected myself to watching this atrocity for the purposes of this article; you can find my email address on the home page to arrange a PayPal donation to fund the psychiatric sessions I will need for the rest of my days to try and erase it from my memory. The film features Matt Lanter as Will Farmer, a young hot-shot hacker who becomes targeted for elimination by an all-encompassing government computer named R.I.P.L.E.Y., because he wins at an online video game? The movie really doesn’t make much sense, and even the appearance of Colm Feore as project director Hassert doesn’t help things much. There’s cute-as-a-button Amanda Walsh as Farmer’s plucky love-interest Annie, but she is negated by Farmer’s annoying best friend Dennis, played by Nicolas Wright. While Dennis is around for “comic” relief, R.I.P.L.E.Y. herself might induce the most laughs of the film, being a random assortment of motherboards connected by IDE cables, encased in a glass room filled with smoke and strobe lights. There are some nice throws to the original, such as when Will and Dennis are going down the list of games R.I.P.L.E.Y. has available online; when they get to Global Thermonuclear War they look at each other, shake their heads and say “Nah”. There are a couple of other links to the original, not only infuriating the viewer as the film proceeds to piss all over these great aspects of the first movie, they also serve as a stark reminder that you should really just be watching that one instead. This entire travesty will simply be another lurking horror behind the three-foot-thick Cheyenne Mountain NORAD-type blast door in my mind where I shove these movies and then refuse to compute that they ever existed, to sully the good name of their forerunner films, i.e. there were only two Alien films, Jaws was a one-off, and there hasn’t been a sequel to WarGames. In other words, The Dead Code is dead to me.

There was no direct to DVD sequel to WarGames. There has always never been a sequel to WarGames

The dead inside Dead Code, 2008

 

The original WarGames gets a re-release at around the same time, showing for a short run at 317 theatres for its 25th anniversary in 2008. A more positive sequel outlook comes with rumours kicking around since 2009 that videogame aficionado and Hollywood power-player Leonardo DiCaprio is investigating the possibility of making a reboot of WarGames, through his Appian Way production company. While this fails to pan out, MGM puts into development a true WarGames sequel, for release in 2013. At the helm is Seth Baker, a director who’s resume might at first glance seem a bit lean, but it has it where it counts: he is the writer, editor and director of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a wonderful documentary about one man’s quest to wrest the Donkey Kong all-time score record from the flamboyant Billy Mitchell. Considering Baker’s obvious affection for classic video games, one hopes MGM has found the man for the job in putting a faithful sequel of WarGames together.

Still from WarGames, a video game themed movie by MGM/UA 1983

Joshua sums it all up

 

The original is a wonderfully entertaining film, a kind of Dr. Strangelove for the Pac-Man generation that I love to watch over and over again. Never before, or even since, has there been a more realistic portrayal of computer hacking put on the screen. The careful consultation that writers Lasker and Parkes did with various hackers, including Captain Crunch, shows: Lightman uses a brute force phone number scanning technique that is a proven real-life tool of hackers, a technique that would eventually take the name of the movie to become known as wardialing. An Internet-era cousin of the process, driving around neighborhoods in vehicles looking for unsecured wireless access points to hi-jack, becomes known as wardriving. This, as opposed to the typical Hollywood MO of flashy, graphically intense portrayals of hackers swooping through systems represented as garish 3D hallways, with suddenly a giant vault door slamming shut in front of them flashing “ACCESS DENIED” in a giant, blocky red font as they type furiously away on their keyboard. You know, like the kind of flashy graphics and swooping colourful text that they reverted to in the hacking scenes in that sequel they made of WarGames called The Deeeeeaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrppppppppppppppppppppp —-

HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?

 


Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)



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NuclearFiles.org – 20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War, by Alan F. Philips, M.D. – bit.ly/6z2OPG
1982 image of Badham, Lasker and Parkes, as well as other information, from Electronic Games, “The Inside Story of WarGames” by Jeff Ressner, pgs. 90-93, Sep 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Game magazine collection
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Krasnoff, Barbara. “Reel to Real: Why Computers Can’t Be Villains.” Enter Oct. 1983: n. pag. Enter Magazine Number 01. Internet Archive. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. Image of real SAC HQ (photo by Dirck Halstead/Liason Agency) and WarGames’ HQ
Image of Stephen Hawking from Omni magazine, “The Wizard of Space and Time”, by Dennis Overbuy, photograph by J. Calder, pg. 45, Feb 1979
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Etra, Amy. Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker. 1991. Premiere. 5th ed. Vol. 4. New York: Murdoch Magazines, 1991. 46. Print.
Berry, Patricia. “Preparing for ‘War Games’: The Basic Training of Matthew Broderick.” Enter Oct. 1983: 20. Enter Magazine Number 01. Internet Archive. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. To improve Matthew’s obvious video game skills, the producers of WarGames sent two full-size arcade games to his New York home a month before filing began.; For an entire month, the apartment was filled with the whizzing sounds of Galaga and Galaxian.
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Billboard, “New On the Charts”, by Faye Zuckerman, pgs. 25, 27, Jul 21 1984

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