I consider the first WarGames to be the ultimate nerd movie. Nothing (other than the short-lived Freaks & Geeks TV series) has as pitch-perfect a portrayal of a nerd. David Lightman was a socially awkward smartass stunted by an educational system that bored him and apathetic parents. He retreated to computers in the days before everyone had one on their desktop, and he taught himself how to use them. Part of this characterization comes from the writers’ desire to show how a seemingly normal, if nerdy, kid could be mistaken for a terrorist (drawing parallels between the isolation felt by a nerd and the isolation felt by a potential extremist whack-job). Part of it comes from good writing and casting, plain and simple. It’s kind of hard to believe the same actor who played the smarmy, charismatic Ferris Bueller could pull off the nerd character, but maybe Matthew Broderick’s inherent charm helps Lightman rise above the stereotype he could have easily been.
But it’s not just about the central character. WarGames plunges Lightman into a story any budding, antiauthoritarian hacker nerd only wishes would happen to them. After hacking into what he thinks is an innocuous gaming company’s development system, he plays an innocent game of Global Thermonuclear War, impresses a hot chick with his ability to hack into an airline and create reservations for two to Paris, and suddenly he’s at the center of a terrorist investigation that may just cause nuclear annihilation.
I love WarGames, and to be honest, I sort of looked forward to its direct-to-video sequel. Maybe that was my mistake. In a pop-culture landscape increasingly dominated by annoying “geek chic”—real nerds will tell you there’s nothing cool about being a geek; it’s all about trying to hide vital components of your being to avoid humiliation, until you find enough people who share your interests to feel vaguely less embarrassed—it could have served up a refreshing antidote, showing nerds as they really are. Not fat, slovenly, Asperger’s types living in their parents’ basements, but also not super-cool guys wearing vintage Atari T-shirts and talking about Star Wars—just mildly socially awkward people caught in the unfortunate crossfire of utter fascination and mild embarrassment of said fascination with computers, role-playing games, fantasy novels, and the complete works of Monty Python.
To my surprise and initial joy, WarGames: The Dead Code does start out getting things mostly right. Will Farmer (Matt Lanter) is the heir apparent to David Lightman—socially awkward, obsessed with massive multiplayer online role-playing games, unchallenged by his high school curriculum, inexplicably good-looking. He has a crush on Annie (Amanda Walsh), a cute girl in his computer science class who undergoes a frustrating metamorphosis from equally intelligent to rube-like (because, at a certain point in the film, she’s the only one around to ask questions vital to the audience understanding the plot). Seeking to spend more time with her, Will begs his ailing mother (Susan Glover) to lend him $550 so he can go on a class trip to an international chess championship in Montreal. She both doesn’t have the money and doesn’t want her son to go off on a trip largely unchaperoned, so strikes a deal she knows he’ll never live up to: If he can raise the money himself, he can go.
Little does she know, Will has complete access to his conveniently Middle Eastern neighbor’s bank account. He’s a doddering old man who doesn’t understand technology, and he trusts Will enough to fix things to give him full access. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know Will has a devil on his shoulder in the form of Dennis (Nicolas Wright), who convinces Will to “borrow” money from his neighbor’s bank account, place a bet on a new online gaming platform called RIPLEY and double his money instantly. That way, he can return what he “borrowed” and withdraw his winnings without his neighbor ever knowing. But as soon as Will leaves the room, Dennis appends an extra zero to the bet.
The game challenges Will to plan and execute a terrorist attack on his hometown of Philadelphia. He has twenty minutes to decimate the city, and with each success Will has in the game, the computer removes an advantage (either a weapon or defense mechanism) to make it more difficult. By the skin of his teeth, Will wins the game. At 5-to-1 odds, that’s more than $20,000 (minus what he must repay the neighbor).
This gets Will on the creators’ radar. Unlucky for him, the creators work for the Pentagon. RIPLEY is an elaborate government computer designed to use player feedback to analyze human response to an attack. It’s also designed to suss out potential terrorists. Just like David Lightman, Will is a perfect storm of terrorist possibility—the fact that he wins the game, the fact that he’s using money from a Syrian bank account to place his bet, and the fact that he immediately plans a trip to Montreal make him a pretty good candidate even before the psychological profile of his antisocial ways.
Once in Montreal, Will does get to spend more time with Annie—primarily because her own crush causes her to sidle up next to him, just in time for him to spend the rest of the movie on the run. What follows is pretty much the same as the first movie, only with more car chases and pretty computer graphics. Oh yeah, and less imagination or interest in character above plot.
Here’s a simple illustration of why WarGames: The Dead Code is so vastly inferior to its predecessor. In the first film, Lightman desperately wants to try the new games he’s seen advertised in a magazine. With the help of some fellow hacker nerds (played by the great character actor Maury Chaykin and the not-so-great walking stereotype Eddie Deezen), Lightman realizes the best way to find the backdoor into the password-protected system is to start researching everything about the company, its products, its employees, et cetera. This leads to the discovery of Stephen Falken and John McKittrick, who will become pivotal characters later in the film. The introduction to these characters, exposition, and development feels exceptionally natural because Lightman’s goal at this point is not to find Stephen Falken—it’s to break into a computer system by finding out about a presumed-dead computer programmer and gaming theorist.
Compare that to similar developments in the sequel. Stephen Falken (Gary Reineke, taking over for John Wood), who has faked his death once again, simply walks up to Will and Annie, explains who he is and what RIPLEY is, and leads both characters on the hunt for WOPR, the system from the first film. One of the things that makes WarGames such a great nerd movie is its willingness to depict the often tedious life of the obsessive. We now live in a world where Google makes that tediousness largely obsolete, but even so, this sequel simply hands vital information to Will on a silver platter. Neither he nor Annie need to prove their geek bona fides by figuring anything out themselves. The first film is nothing but Lightman using his mind—figuring out how to hack the system, figuring out how to escape from NORAD, figuring out how to break through to the seemingly insane Falken, and finally, figuring out how to get WOPR to stop. The sequel lacks this quality entirely, to its great detriment.
To be fair, though, the movie is passable (almost good) until Falken shows up. From that point, it’s pretty much a dumbed-down remake of the first film. Director Stuart Gillard tosses in numerous references to the original film (including the presence of WOPR, who must “fight” RIPLEY at a certain point) that come across more like cheap nostalgia than worthwhile homage. Maybe that’s because it literally steals the best moments of the first film, unabashedly and without commentary.
On the plus side, the actors acquit themselves reasonably well. Lanter is blandly fine, but he’s certainly no Matthew Broderick. Despite the awful writing for her character, Walsh manages to breathe some life into Annie, making her personality seem mildly less inconsistent. However, she mostly lacks the charm and wit she displayed on the short-lived sitcom Sons and Daughters (with one exception, in which she attempts to distract a suave computer guru by affecting an amusing dumb-girl persona). Colm Feore plays a flamboyant variation on the McKittrick character that is both hilarious and obnoxious. On one hand, I applaud Feore’s willingness to do pretty much any movie offered to him, but it bothers me because he’s capable of so much more than something like this. The biggest surprise to me was nerd-bait “get” Claudia Black (legendary as Aeryn Sun on Farscape), who voices RIPLEY without a trace of her Australian accent. I can’t figure out the logic in hiring someone with a distinctive voice and a large geek following, then making her sound unrecognizable. (It also disappoints me that an actress of such versatility is forced to voice an emotionless computer; Gillard doesn’t even allow her cold voice to make the proceedings vaguely creepy à la Douglas Rain in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kevin Spacey in Moon) At least Feore, who voices WOPR (imitating the computer voice from the first film with the help of some modulation effects), has an on-camera role to justify the reason for hiring him.
I could go on for another page about why this movie’s second half fails to live up to both the promise of the first and the promise of a WarGames sequel, but I can tell by your snoring that I should wrap it up. So here’s the bottom line: WarGames: The Dead Code is an awful film. I’d say it taints the legacy of the original, but I’m one of nineteen people who know of its existence. Just take my advice and don’t rent it.