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 endsHold 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?
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.
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.