‘WarGames’ adds depth to AI antagonist

By Marilyn MacLaren, Staff Writer

“WarGames” (1983) is a sci-fi thriller directed by John Badham. The film stars Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a shy tech-savvy teen who gets more than he bargained for after attempting to hack into a database to play computer games. What he finds instead is “Joshua,” a program at the heart of the War Operations Planned Response, or WOPR, used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, to simulate war “games” and strategies against the Soviet Union. Along with his love interest and unwitting partner-in-crime Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy, David will race to undo his mistakes before a simple misunderstanding could very well end in World War III.

The film also stars Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, who oversees WOPR, overestimates its ability in navigating the reality of war and disregards the moral and ethical intricacies that can come from nuclear warfare. His overzealous encouragement and embellishment of the WOPR’s capabilities to the U.S. government gives his character an almost mad scientist archetype, too proud of his invention to understand its consequences. 

This sets up an interesting conflict with another character named General Jack Beringer, played by Barry Corbin. His portrayal as the general of the United States shows his arrogant nature, paranoid and untrusting of any kind of technology with the country’s most dangerous line of defense. Yet, even after learning the supposed threat is only an illusion from WOPR, he continues this warmongering stereotype that appears to satirize the government as a whole and its approach to the nuclear threat.

Although the plot can seem outrageous at times, the film poses a genuine fear that stems from humanity’s overreliance on technology, including the dangers of AI evolving into something we can no longer control. What is interesting about this film is that the audience is meant to view the WOPR or the program “Joshua,” as the antagonist because its oblivious to its own power and destruction in perceiving a simulation as real life. 

In reality, “Joshua” is simply following its programming, assessing the threat it can not distinguish from real life due to the limits of its technology, and choosing the best strategy for success. This is revealed through Dr. Stephen Falken, the programmer of “Joshua,” played by John Wood. 

The teens seek out his help in stopping the program, which Falken is able to understand as an empty threat based on how he designed the game. This lack of humanity in “Joshua” is highlighted through an eerie simulated voice used to contact David to continue the game he started and complete the objective: to win.

Broderick brings an innocence to David that makes him so endearing as a protagonist, causing the audience look past the computer nerd he appears to be. Although the character exhibits some qualities that could potentially force him to be a one-dimensional stereotype, David shows how deeply he regrets messing with “Joshua” and realizes the gravity of these consequences. 

Towards the end of the film when it seems he and Jennifer are too late, he voices his realization that he never learned how to swim and wanted to, that he believed there would be time. This human moment is what connects David to his love for life in something as simple and real as no longer experiencing the everyday. The film accomplishes this balance of sci-fi and fear by reminding viewers exactly what we have to lose.

 

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