1983 (December 20, 2022)
Sherwood Productions/United Artists/MGM (Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
One of the more popular tropes of 1980s pop culture cinema was the teenage “whiz kid” who saves the day or is otherwise central to resolving the plot. Think Real Genius, The Goonies, Revenge of the Nerds, Short Circuit, Explorers, Space Camp, The Last Starfighter, Weird Science, Deadly Friend… one could even argue that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off belongs in this category. But no film of the time exemplified this trope better than WarGames.
Directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, who replaced Martin Brest just two weeks into production), its story tracks Seattle teen David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), who hacks into a Pentagon computer network he mistakenly believes is a video game company. While showing off for a classmate (Ally Sheedy), David finds a list of games on the network that includes one intriguingly named Global Thermonuclear War. But when the pair starts to play it, the game triggers the Pentagon’s new supercomputer—known as the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response)—to begin an actual countdown to a war that NORAD’s General Beringer (Barry Corbin) and Dr. McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) believe is the real deal. Upon realizing this, David races to track down the computer’s reclusive co-designer, Stephen Falken (John Wood), to convince them all of the truth.
WarGames was among the first films (along with Steve Lisberger’s Tron) to accurately depict the personal computer technology of the day, though fans would have been surprised to learn that the NORAD facility depicted in the film was far more advanced than the real thing back in 1983. The decision to replace Brest (who went on to direct Beverly Hills Cop) was made by studio executives upon seeing the early daily footage, which was reportedly much darker in tone. One of the first things Badham did upon taking over was to encourage Broderick and Sheedy to have fun with their roles. He also ditched the shooting script in favor of an earlier draft by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parks, which Brest had abandoned. Both young actors ultimately shine on screen, supported by an ensemble of strong character performances by Coleman and Wood, along with James Tolkan, Juanin Clay, John Spencer, Michael Madsen, Eddie Deezen, and others. But it’s Barry Corbin (of Northern Exposure fame—a late addition to the cast by Badham) who really grounds the film while adding a bit of much-needed gallows humor in key moments.
WarGames also features a terrific final scene, in which the film’s production design, editing, music, and cinematography combine seamlessly to deliver a uniquely thrilling climax. One can easily imagine the pitch for this scene sounding dreadfully dull in the room—and reading that way on the page as well—but Badham, cinematographer William A. Fraker (Exorcist II, Tombstone), editor Tom Rolf (Taxi Driver, The Right Stuff, Heat), composer Arthur Rubinstein (Blue Thunder), and others bring their full talents to bear here in a masterclass of visual set-piece tension building.
WarGames was shot on 35 mm film by Fraker using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, and it was finished at the 1.85:1 “flat” aspect ratio for theaters. For its release on Ultra HD, Shout! Factory has availed themselves of a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, complete with digital remastering and grading for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are included). The resulting image offers plenty of crisp detail and semi-refined texturing, though some interior shots appear to have employed a bit of soft focus or filtering on set to add atmosphere. Photochemical grain is medium-strong but organic looking at all times. Colors are bold and natural, with a slightly cool appearance by design. Highlights are bright, with deep blacks that are just a tiny bit crushed and gray looking on occasion. I wouldn’t call this a reference-quality 4K film image, but it’s very good and certainly offers best representation of this film on any home video format to date—a major improvement over the previous Blu-ray.
Audio is included in English 5.1 and 2.0 in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. The 2.0 mono mix preserves the film’s original theatrical sound experience, while the 5.1 appears to be the same mix included on the previous Blu-ray. It offers a medium-wide front soundstage, with pleasing use of the surround channels for music, subtle directional effects, and environmental cues (like com chatter in the NORAD “war room”). Overall tonal quality is full-sounding, with deep, punchy bass, and clear dialogue. The dynamic range here is actually quite surprising, which really gives the film’s set pieces a satisfying bit of oomph and bluster. Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
Shout!’s 4K Ultra HD includes only one special feature:
- Audio Commentary with John Badham, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter Parkes
Thankfully, the package also includes the remastered film on Blu-ray, a disc also includes the commentary and adds the following:
- Loading WarGames (SD – 45:05)
- Inside NORAD: Cold War Fortress (SD – 10:54)
- Attack of the Hackers (SD – 13:35)
- Tic-Tac-Toe: A True Story (SD – 4:30)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:22)
All of these extras appeared on MGM’s 2012 Blu-ray release, and most were created for the film’s 25th anniversary DVD in 2008 (save for the director’s commentary, which is from the original 1998 DVD). The commentary is lively and interesting; Badham and the screenwriters have a good rapport and deliver a steady stream of trivia and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Inside NORAD is a look behind-the-scenes at the real Cheyenne Mountain Complex, while Attack of the Hackers examines early hacker culture. Loading WarGames is the highlight of the video-based content, featuring an in-depth look at the production itself. Badham, Broderick, Sheedy, Corbin, and several other members of the cast and crew are interviewed. National security expert Richard A. Clarke and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also appear in these extras. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new in terms of special features, but what you do get is solid (and it’s nice to have everything carry over here).
If you’ve seen recent interviews with Matthew Broderick, you’re much more likely to imagine him wearing a smoking jacket at The Lambs Club or SOHO House in New York City than wearing sneakers as a teenaged computer nerd, yet WarGames provides ample proof of his screen acting origins. And while the film feels a bit dated—even quaint—by today’s standards, it still retains plenty of charms and simple pleasures. It’s also never looked better than it does here in 4K, so Shout! Factory’s new Ultra HD release is well worth consideration by fans.
– Bill Hunt
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