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January 13th, 2007


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02:36 pm - after careful consideration I've come to the conclusion that your idea of 'bad cinema' sucks
There appear to be some in this world of ours who seem to have forgotten that there's two components to the term "science-fiction." The first component is, of course, "science." The second component is "fiction." Both components are often up for debate, granted, but "fiction" usually means "something that didn't really happen." When it comes to writing fiction that mirrors current or almost-current events, artistic liberties are often taken in the name of a good story.

When it comes to fiction in movies, liberties are often taken so as to make the film as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. For there are two components to the term "show business" as well; the first being "show" and the second being "business." To ensure Butts In Seats and box office revenue, you must make sure the film can appeal to a wide range of your target demographic. This is not always a good thing, as you run the risk of alienating those to whom the subject matter is relevant. But this is not always a bad thing, either, for you wish to engage as many people as possible (who will also hopefully tell their friends!) It's a terribly fine line to walk, but when a nice balance is achieved, you have a hit on your hands.

This partly explains why I was pretty darn chagrined when I saw this listing in the program events for Arisia 2007:
SATURDAY 11:30 PM or whenever masquerade ends
WARGAMES -- SPECIAL EXTRA-BAD MOVIE

Teenage cracker uses his IMSAI to start the atomic destruction of the world. The Legion of Doom describes this film as "Puerile and offensive to hackers." Richard Stallman says, "I don't get my kicks from that sort of movie." Absolutely devoid of any redeeming content or even a tiny vestige of technical accuracy, this film provides a little nostalgic glimpse of a more naive world. This movie is presented in conjunction with the Institute for Very Bad Cinema.
Hold up there. Extra-Bad Movie? Very Bad Cinema? You have a treasure trove of poorly-made, poorly-shot, low-budget boredomfests just ripe for the picking and you select this as your crowning glory?

I'm sorry, but you rubes wouldn't know a bad film if it sat up and bored you for 3 hours.

So Richard Stallman denounced it? Oooooooh. Richard Stallman denounces broccoli. I'm sure he'd have said the same thing about The Naked Broccoli Farmin' Women of Ceta-6 if such a film had been made. In all fairness, though, I do understand Stallman's frustration at the film's use of the term "hacker". Traditionally it means one who works extensively with computers, tinkering with them, inquisitively seeking out what they can do and push 'em to their limit. It's a badge of pride, really (and Broderick's character does this to an extent in the film.) But after Wargames, mainstream America viewed the term as synonymous with "cracker" (correctly used in the capsule description) which is the term for one who uses computers to illegally gain access to other computers and information they're not privy to. It is never any fun when someone else takes your vocabulary, co-opts it and gives it a new, negative connotation. That really can be personally offensive, and that much I'll concede when it comes to Wargames' sins against computers and computer users.

Oh, and don't ask me to explain what IMSAI means, because in hir quest to point jabby fingers at this Hollywood watering-down of technology, the capsule-writer neglects to provide any kind of acronymical context whatsoever, instead presumptuously expecting the reader to fully understand it. Hooray for myopia! Oh, and it's not necessary to explain to me what IMSAI means, either, because I can Just Fucking Google it.

And honestly, Wargames is far from my favorite movie, and I've had a chuckle or two myself over the admittedly hokey acting ("You don't understand! JOSHUA called ME!!"), the outdated technology (I'm a sucker for acoustic modem couplers, by the by) and all. But the film does not deserve the steaming pile that has been dumped on it here. I mean, let's look at the point in time in which this film was made.

Nuclear War was the big bad guy in 1983. We were scared as hell that at any point, something could break down, either diplomatically or technologically, and we'd start lobbing nukes back and forth with Russia until we had nothing left but smoking craters on both sides of the Pacific. Mutual Assured Destruction and all that. It would be years until the West learned of the Soviet computer malfunction that, around the time of Wargames' release, almost started a full-scale nuclear war, but yes. It could happen. And we was scared.

Then comes the home computer, making its big rise. A host of celebrities from Alan Alda to Bill Cosby showed us all how easy it is to use a PC ("that stands for Personal Computer") to do your taxes, or for the kids to do their homework, or for Mother to keep a recipe database. And with a modem and a phone line, suddenly you weren't alone with your computer. You could connect to others. That was amazing. Your computer in Baton Rouge could talk to another computer in Fargo (and rack up some hefty long-distance bills, but that's beside the point.)

There was also knowledge on the periphery of the crackers, and their exploits began to catch some imaginations. And that's where the what if, the kernel of every story, came into play. What if someone used their home computer to almost start World War III? It was a plausible enough scenario, and one that tapped right into both the American fear of technology and the Russkies. Wargames was Hollywood's first stab at showing just what could be done with a computer, a telephone, an inquisitive kid and the wrong number. Did you think they'd get it 100% right on the first try? Well, they certainly did some things against what's now considered "traditional" hacker stereotypes.

For one, Matthew Broderick's character wasn't played as a taped-glasses, pocket-protector-wearing social outcast (was that what Stallman wanted to see?) Neither was he the "cool" kid with the wide collars and Risky Business sunglasses (or maybe that?) Instead, he was just a regular kind of teenager who had a regular kind of home computer with which he messed around, and a regular kind of girlfriend (with whom he also presumably messed around.) He also just happened to have a pretty loose moral code when it came to messing around with other people's computers and obtaining pirated games from the comfort of his own home. So what if the computer talked to him with a synth voice of higher quality than could be had at home in 1983? You have to admit the "SHALL we PLAY a GAME?" soundbite has become iconic. THAT'S the kind of lasting impact you want your story to have.

And so what if Broderick gained entry into the NORAD defense computer with the simple password of "joshua"? That's simple social engineering right there, my friends, and any computer security expert worth his or her salt ought to recognize and appreciate that. Broderick presumed correctly (after speaking to a stereotypical nerd, ok, negative points for the film there) that Professor Falken would miss his dead son enough to give himself a constant reminder every time he logged in. And Broderick obtained his school mainframe's ever-changing passwords by routinely checking the secretary's desk. He knew which two Don'ts of password picking to exploit: the personal connection password and the "better write it down so I don't forget it" trap -- both rules, you'll be absolutely not surprised to learn, are still broken in some of today's better office environments.

But Broderick's still just a kid, and when he realizes what he's set into motion, the computer simulated game he thought he was playing is treated as the real thing by NORAD, he acts like a kid. He doesn't say any hip, computery catchphrases, he doesn't go all action hero; in fact, he panics. He's human. In the end, it's the computer itself that ends up saving the day once it realizes that ain't nobody's going to winning this game, be it tic-tac-toe or Mutually Assured Destruction. You can easily write a tic-tac-toe algorithm that will always win... provided the other side goes first. So what's the point in playing? Ah-ha! The peacekeeping moral "the only way to win is not to play", however cliche these days, was just what we needed to hear when the hammer-n-sickle missiles were poised at us.

Maybe I'm just getting old, and find no need anymore to get too derisive, or too nitpicky, over Hollywood's portrayal of computers in film. I was once an Angry Young Man who stood up during The Net and hollered "J'ACCUSE!" when All The Evidence In The World That Could Do Damage To Everybody somehow fit on a 3 1/2" disk. And the less said about Hackers, which tried so desperately to make "hacking the Gibson" so gosh-darned hip, the better. But when I view a film such as Wargames, even though I may laugh at parts, I can also take away from it the historical context and the fears upon which it played.

But to take extreme umbrage against typical Hollywood portrayals is tiring to me now for whatever reason. Oh, sure, I'll still laugh at egregiously fake operating systems, and I'll hoot every time I see a scene where the hero just types "ACCESS ALL SECRET DOCUMENTS" into a DOS prompt and hey presto gets all the secret documents he needs. That's convenience bordering on the point of ludicrousness, and when taken to a literal extreme, makes for good comedy. But how ludicrous would it have been if the hero had typed a SQL query? "SELECT * FROM documents WHERE secret = 1", say? I'd laugh just as hard.

It's all Hollywood shorthand. Just like how everybody who takes a cab in a movie just gets out of the car, hands the driver some cash, and doesn't wait for their change. It has to happen for the sake of moving the story along, no matter how strange it would seem in real life.

Would you want to watch a truly literal representation of someone using a computer to get into trouble? Let's see... constant shots of an editor (the vi interface sure will engage the audience), mounting tension while the code compiles, maybe a few lines of IRC conversation... then OH NOES! Fatal make error! STOP! Now comes the exciting debugging sequence! And another one! And maybe a third! Permissions now all properly set, let's run it from the command line. No, we don't get to type "BLOW UP ALL THE EVIL COMPUTERS IN THE WORLD", we'll just have to settle for something like "./blowup" and hope for the worst. Hey, where'd everybody in the theater go? They heard Andy Warhol's Empire was screening in the next theater over and knew it'd be more interesting? Well... maybe they're right.

I don't know. I'm not sure exactly why the snide comments against Wargames stuck in my craw so hard. But if that's the smug, techier-than-thou attitude that lingers in the Arisia film screening room like the stench of burnt popcorn, then I want nothing to do with it.

I wonder what they'd think of COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, by the by. That film is one of my favorites, and anyone who disparages it should get a sock in the eye.

(26 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:maga_dogg
Date:January 13th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
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Any sins committed by Wargames are thoroughly expiated by the pure awesomeness that is DEFCON: Everybody Dies. It teaches that you can win an all-out thermonuclear war, but only if the enemy is an AI.
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 13th, 2007 10:11 pm (UTC)
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I once played this awesome game in school where you had to shoot all the aliens but then it turned out I really was shooting all the aliens and wiped out their entire race, which was kinda sad when I thought about it but on the other hand I'm glad they were real aliens because I was thinking the AI in the game was really really cruddy
From:argentla
Date:January 13th, 2007 10:37 pm (UTC)
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BWAHAHA.
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From:mmcirvin
Date:January 14th, 2007 01:01 am (UTC)
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Ooh, and now you live on a planet with sentient pigs that turn into trees?

And people write essays about how you're really Hitler and your author has this thing about gay people?
From:lno
Date:January 14th, 2007 12:41 am (UTC)
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AI? Pfft. You can blow up OTHER PEOPLE in that! And feel good when you do it!

(Although I admit I did feel a twinge of conscience when I saw "LONDON HIT 9.8 MILLION DEAD" the first time...)
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From:maga_dogg
Date:January 14th, 2007 01:34 am (UTC)
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I haven't really done the multiplayer thing, largely because I'm on satellite and it's kind of a pain to hit the server. The few times I have played against people, my continent has ended up as a plain of featureless black glass. Frickin' bomber massing.
From:argentla
Date:January 13th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC)
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I read something the other day saying that WarGames was originally NOT intended to be a teen movie -- it was intended to have adult principal characters, and be a serious examination of the possibility of nuclear war being started through computer tampering. Somebody at the studio level decided it would be more commercial if it were a teen flick.
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 14th, 2007 08:21 am (UTC)
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Reminds me of Stanley Kubrick working on the adaptation of the novel Red Alert, realizing the script worked much better as a satire, and getting Dr. Strangelove out of it all. I've seen Fail Safe and thought, yeah, it really did need a spot of Vera Lynn at the end.
From:argentla
Date:January 13th, 2007 10:40 pm (UTC)
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I actually like Hackers. Not because it has anything to do with hacking -- I have to pretend they're talking about something else that isn't at all related to real-world computers -- but because of its lavish queer subtext. And Angelina Jolie before she got quite so crazy.
From:mhaille
Date:January 13th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC)
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Mm, there's some darn fine eye candy in that film. Better watched on mute, but hey.
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From:minkrose
Date:January 14th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)
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and in an attempt to be fair: I dont think anyone would go see a movie called "Crackers." Or at least, they'd probably expect something veeeery different.


by the way Spatch, I didn't realise the LJ-cut would be hiding THAT MUCH text behind it!
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From:mmcirvin
Date:January 14th, 2007 01:14 am (UTC)
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Actually I always kinda thought of Colossus: The Forbin Project as the good version of Wargames.

The humans in both movies display unbelievable levels of stupidity in setting up the situation in the first place, but I suppose that can be taken as acceptable hyperbole.

Wargames did annoy me a bit in the 80s, though, just because I got sick of all the "good with computers, eh? You can hack into the Pentagon and blow up the world?" jokery. It was an OK boy's adventure/Cold War morality tale, but back then I got a sense that a lot of people actually did take it as realistic, WOPR and all.
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From:vanguardcdk
Date:January 14th, 2007 06:29 am (UTC)
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Yay earth-destroying computers!

Wargames has it's flaws but it definately doesn't deserve the thrashing in that write-up. Along with Tron and Colossus it's one of my favorite hacker/computer movies. (Terminator is also fun...but that's for a different post)

[User Picture]
From:slit
Date:January 14th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)

How about a nice game of chess?

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I love this post. Probably because I love Wargames. I didn't at the time, really -- I didn't hate it, either, but it was Just Another Movie, like 16 Candles or Splash. Matthew Broderick is fun! Computers are neat!

Watching it in retrospect, though, it's a near-perfect snapshot of that point in the Cold War. Not only because the Russians were scary and going to eat us, but because there was such heavy rhetoric, especially aimed at kids, about the necessity of not engaging in the first place. Ideological discussions were absent by that point; the whole focus was tactical (the tic-tac-toe analogy? brilliant) and, to some extent, the scientific details of how you'd die or, worse, what would happen if you'd live (cue Dr. Falken and his militant indifference, on his island showing the kids filmstrips of dinosaurs). Even though the Cold War was actually a series of smaller hot wars playing out by proxy throughout the Third World, the rhetoric surrounding it was overwhelmingly pro-peace, not in a hippie way, but precisely in the Defcon-5 / red-alert / don't-touch-that-button! way that Wargames depicts so well. There was definitely a sense that peace was tenuous and things could break down at any minute, but also that that would be really bad and we really super don't want that to happen.

Compare that to now, and our pre-Iraq view of tactics, with its disconnect between technology and war's human cost. I think the majority of people who supported the invasion really believed we could fly over the country, drop some smart bombs on defunct facilities, and go home a few months later. Wargames, at least, still had some of the innocence of watching Global Thermonuclear War play out on a screen and wondering, surreally, if _actual people_ were dying under there (and caring!).

I can see from a sci-fi standpoint how that might be just another Frankenstein-style story of losing control of your technology, and why that would offend the geeks, but as you say, that's missing the point.
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From:mmcirvin
Date:January 14th, 2007 07:31 pm (UTC)
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And it's interesting that for all his nuclear bellicosity/millenarism, and the frequent feeling that he was going to get the US embroiled in a major war in Central America at any moment, Reagan never actually sent US troops into a major war. It took the elder Bush to do that.

Which meant that at that point in history, two things were going on. The adults still thought of the war in Vietnam and everything associated with it as recent events (which they were, something that amazes me in hindsight, since I personally had little sense of that--Vietnam was more recent history in the early eighties than the fall of the USSR is now!) But for the kids, war was primarily this enormous abstract thing off in the distance; it was Armageddon or nothing. Nukes = End of the World but if we didn't blow up the whole world, nothing else could be quite that bad.

And that may have actually colored my generation's attitudes toward fighting in Iraq: Saddam getting a nuke equals End of the World, so you take extraordinary measures against it even if it's an incredibly remote possibility, but we didn't think enough about how hopeless counterinsurgency warfare was in Vietnam or elsewhere.
(Deleted comment)
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 17th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC)

Re: How about a nice game of chess?

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jonathannil posted a message which I inadvertently deleted; I'm sorry, I was aiming for my own reply and apparently you can't undelete stuff. Ack.




jonathannil
2007-01-17 01:45 pm UTC (from 71.255.210.171) (link)
Cloak and Dagger was awesome! I forgot about that movie. I suspect it wouldn't hold up nearly as well as War Games.
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 17th, 2007 02:02 pm (UTC)

Re: How about a nice game of chess?

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And my reply was:

I remember the kid in Cloak & Dagger playing the game on an Atari 2600 or 5200, I can't remember which, but it totally featured stuff the Atari couldn't do. I know this a bit too well because I was just a wee bit obsessed with my 2600 as a kid.

But on the other hand, Jack Flack is one of my favoritest characters ever. Jack Flack always escapes. And the opening sequence with the dice and Jack rising up out of the game board was amazing to me at the time. It must have been before I saw The Neverending Story.
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From:tcpip
Date:January 15th, 2007 03:05 am (UTC)
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What you said.
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From:madarab
Date:January 15th, 2007 08:59 am (UTC)
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"Goddammit, I'd piss on a spark plug if I thought it'd do any good!"
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From:jamie_miller
Date:January 15th, 2007 05:16 am (UTC)
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(found this post via slit)

I also liked WarGames. And Sneakers, too.
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From:radiotelescope
Date:January 15th, 2007 06:45 am (UTC)
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Whenever the subject of realistic movie/TV presentation of hacking comes up, I find it necessary to mention --

(you thought I was going to say IRIX, but you are wrong)

-- an early episode of the "La Femme Nikita" TV series, in which the Young Computer Genius is on the line to the action/angst heroes, who are in the terrorist base trying to stop the terrorist computer from doing something bad, and the YCG says "Ok, calm down. Type exactly what I say. K I L L dash 9 space 3 4 1 8..."

I laughed and laughed.

A few episodes later YCG came out with the line "*Twice* the frequency. Sampling Theorem, *duh*" (in purest geek contempt). Sadly the series was all downhill after that.
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From:babs_the_nymph
Date:January 15th, 2007 07:50 am (UTC)
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Oddly enough, after Hackers, most real computer nerds would willingly admit that it was way more interesting to watch Angelina Jolie work her magic on the cute GUI OS than it would be to watch Stallman do anything with vi. Or anything else for that matter.

I can handle some artistic license. However, there are limits.

Have you ever watched CSI: Miami? It's the worst of the CSI properties. Lots of flashy flashy and very little reality. During one episode which featured a blog, the blog was accessed on a browser that would take, literally, a supercomputer as large as a room to process. Graphics flipped. Text danced in 3D. Blips blooped. All this on a huge Apple Cinema display, and presumably on a police department budget. My computer nerd friends and I can take some artistic license, but we done hooted and howled at this ridiculous abortion of logic.

But once again, dear Spatch, you have hit the nail on the head.
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 15th, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
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I can honestly say I've never seen an episode of CSI: Miami, but I can totally see that kind of technological froo-frah being bandied about. I presume that, due to Fear of Technology, the "blog" was part of Criminal Wrong-Doing?
[User Picture]
From:hemlock_martini
Date:January 15th, 2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
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WELCOME TO CRIMEBLOG DOT COM

DEAR CRIMEBLOG, TODAY I STOLE SOME STUFF AND RAN OVER A FICUS ON MY BIKE

TOMORROW I'M TOTALLY GOING TO LOITER SOMEWHERE, LOL

MOOD: CRIMEY
MUSIC: ACDC - DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP
(Deleted comment)
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From:slit
Date:January 18th, 2007 04:01 am (UTC)
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I saw that episode when it first came out, I think. She pronounced it "internet" (as opposed to "innernet"), like she was sounding it out from a book. I laughed.
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From:nolly
Date:January 15th, 2007 08:28 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, Wargames is cheesy. But "no redeeming content"? I don't think a week goes by without someone in my office quoting it at least once!

OK, I work with geeks. Movie and music geeks, even. But still!

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