JOSHUA's graphics in the film aren't quite that good...
"Greetings, Professor Falken. Shall we play a game?"
David Lightman is a Playful Hacker who nearly sets World War III into motion by playing a game with a government supercomputer that doesn't know the difference between games and reality. Specifically, the game "Global Thermonuclear War." This launches no real missiles on the Russian side, but it plays hell with the computerized missile-detection system.The Government does figure out that someone has hacked into their supercomputer before they release any missiles. They have no problem figuring out who the hacker in question is, and forcibly capture him for questioning. It takes a while for David to explain that he didn't want to cause a real thermonuclear war — he was just trying to play some video games, and impress his girlfriend along the way. It didn't help that he booked himself and his girlfriend on a flight to Paris before he started this game (he was showing off that he could do it; booking tickets online was novel back in the '80s).Meanwhile, JOSHUA wants to keep playing and figures out how to break out the real missiles. David and the Government have to find a way to stop a nuclear war that no one really wants.This film was released in the early 1980s, when personal computers were still new, and networking them was a decade away. The general public didn't think much about hackers before this film. It also popularized the use of the term "hacker" as someone who breaks into computers, and gave an early taste of what online services could provide.A direct-to-DVD sequel was made, called WarGames: The Dead Code, where the US Government develop another AI supercomputer called RIPLEY, this time to combat terrorism. Apparently, they didn't learn their lesson the first time.Also, there's the novelization by David Bischoff, as well as a Coleco Visiongame based on the film.Not to be confused with games about war: if you're looking for that, then you probably were looking for Real Time Strategy or First-Person Shooter (most likely the former.) The Coleco Vision had an adaptation a year after the film's release, while in the nineties, there were additional videogame adaptations of the movie; the PC saw a real-time strategy game, while the PlayStation had more action-oriented, third-person vehicular combat. Both versions served as a sequel, with the again-rogue WOPR becoming something akin to Skynet and massing a full-blown military force against humanity, and the player was allowed to fight for either side. The games were generally well-received when they were released, but have since faded into obscurity. Recently, though, British software developer Introversion has created a game whose graphics seem suspiciously similar to JOSHUA's, despite the update in visual technology: DEFCON: the game in which "nobody wins, but maybe you lose the least." It has since become enormously popular in several gaming circles.It also has an official mobile game, in which you play through a storybook version of the original film's storyline by playing a quirky chain-matching Puzzle Quest variant with nukes, money, radar, and health tiles, and "tactics" and "mods". Notable in that you actually play as JOSHUA trying to beat each of the major characters.
Professor Falken. At least, once he shelves the nihilism, collects the kids and heads off to try and disarm JOSHUA.
General Beringer is right every single time: he thinks it's a bad idea to automate the missile launching, he listens to Falken and doesn't launch the missiles, and he allows David to proceed and attempt to teach JOSHUA futility. McKittrick, on the other hand, ends up being a total asshat.
Jerry, the guy at the start of the film who refuses to launch the missiles, is basically an American Stanislav Petrov. That's a not inconsiderable aversion.
Affectionate Gesture to the Head: During the movie, Dr. McKittrick had been suspicious of and antagonistic toward David Lightman. At the end, after Lightman had prevented World War III, Dr. McKittrick tousled his hair in a friendly way.
A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Actually averted. It's less that JOSHUA is bad and Ludd Was Right, which is the Aesop behind that trope, and more that someone cocked up programming this specific AI and someone was unlucky enough to trigger the bug by accident. If the AI were as intelligent as most examples, the plot of the movie would not have happened. It also wouldn't have happened had anyone listened to Beringer's opinion to keep humans in the loop, and just use the AI as a tool to analyze many potential scenarios.
Attack Pattern Alpha: JOSHUA runs through several variants of Global Thermonuclear War when he's convinced to play both sides himself, which have creative names like the "Indochina Variant."
Brilliant, but Lazy: The psychological profile the army guys draw up of Lightman describe him as "intelligent but an underachiever", amongst other traits that would in their minds make him a good candidate for Soviet recruitment.
Continuity Nod: The videogame sequel went out of its way to have more in common with the movie than the WOPR acronym; the human forces are commanded by General Berringer, and David, grown up, is CEO of Joshua Information Systems. There is an actual narrative that references the events of the movie directly at many points.
In The Dead Code, Falken and JOSHUA make a return to help the second set of protagonists combat RIPLEY.
Cut the Juice: When JOSHUA starts doing a brute force decryption for the launch codes, the general orders the computer depowered ("Why don't you just UNPLUG THE GODDAM THING?!"), but is then told that would be disastrous since the system has a fail deadly function: a sudden loss of power will be interpreted by the launch sites as the destruction of the NORAD base. Without communication from JOSHUA the keepalives would fail, and the launch sites would default to their final instruction - spin up everything and launch.
Defcon Five: Averted utterly. Includes the memorable line:
Flush the bombers. Get the subs on launch mode. We are at DEFCON 1.
And at the end of the movie, when everyone's cheering and the day has been saved:
"Sir...take us to DEFCON 5."
The Eighties: The hair, clothes, soundtrack and technology. More importantly and harder to define is the tone — this movie wouldn't be the same if made at any other time.
Everything Is Online: Justified, since David only discovered JOSHUA by "war-dialing" random numbers looking for one with a modem on the other end, and it's explained in-dialogue that the only reason WOPR had a modem connection to the outside world was due to a grave switching error at the phone company. After David's initial hack alerts the Air Force to this problem they remove it, requiring David to use internal NORAD terminals to communicate with WOPR for the remainder of the movie.
Explosive Instrumentation: apparently, Joshua failing at Tic-tac-toeing itself causes random stuff to blow up for no very good reason and takes quite a while considering the limited number of ways that game can proceed..
Failsafe Failure: JOSHUA specifically does not fail safe. "Failures" are interpreted as hostile action, and "launch the nukes" is the response. The Other Wiki describes this policy as "fail-deadly", and uses nuclear launch systems as an explicit example.
Stephen Falken: The whole point was to find a way to practice nuclear war without destroying ourselves. To get the computers to learn from mistakes we couldn't afford to make. Except, I never could get JOSHUA to learn the most important lesson.
Fridge Logic: Invoked by Jennifer, astonished that David, a Seattle born kid, doesn't know how to swim. Then again, that water is pretty cold.
Gallows Humor: When it looks like humanity is about to be wiped out in a nuclear apocalypse (and just a few moments ago everyone was jubilant with relief at apparently having averted that apocalypse), General Berringer's response is to be Sophisticated as Hell (see below).
Mandark as one of the hackers Lightman talks to early in the movie.
Hollywood Hacking: Along with the William Gibson novel Neuromancer, this movie is the father of Hollywood Hacking, and invented ninety percent of the standard conventions, such as talking out loud while typing. On the other hand, at its time it was an incredibly accurate portrayal of how phreaking and hacking worked; Hollywood never left the 80s.
Trope Namer for many real life hacking/phreaking activities.
I Just Want to Be Normal: Our hero gets one of these moments. In a variation, he doesn't want to lead a normal life, he just wishes he didn't know about the impending apocalypse so he could be happily ignorant until the bombs kill him in a flash.
Insecurity System: NORAD's staff weren't fully aware of what types of security WOPR had running and what backdoors David had been using. One staffer even comments that they "keep hitting a damn firewall" when they try to regain control from JOSHUA hunting for the launch codes by invading the deep logic.
NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker does not, and has never had, public tours. Besides the picked staff and support/construction crew, only cleared journalists and high level politicians (read: Congress members who control the budget) can get in.
Just Think of the Potential: Falken's colleague says the "flaky" scientist failed to see the potential applications for their work on game theory and nuclear war, namely teaching computers how to take care of it for them. When we meet Falken, he gives a different story - he was trying to teach the computer that it was impossible to win the "game".
The Kobayashi Maru: The opening scenes have what appears to be a real launch order, which fails when one of the operators can't go through with it. This turns out to be a simulation (unbeknownst to the operators), and 22% of those tested have reacted the same way, which is what convinces NORAD to put WOPR in charge instead.
Meaningful Echo: Early in the movie, David asks to play Global Thermonuclear War, JOSHUA responds with "Wouldn't you prefer a good game of chess?" After JOSHUA learns the concept of a no-win scenario: "How about a nice game of chess?"
Mythology Gag: The opening cinematic to the 90's console game was a fake game advertizement allegedly from the people who brought you "Proto Chess", "Proto Tic-Tac-Toe", and "Proto Biological Warfare".
No Celebrities Were Harmed: Stephen Falken. Word of God says that he is similar to Stephen Hawking, complete with having the same first name and bird-related last names.
No Mere Windmill: Thereís nothing wrong with the computer. Nope. Itís just a hacker. Itís all his fault. And since this disaster couldnít have been caused by some random kid, he must have been working with the Russians. No, it was the computer all along: A dangerous case of Garbage In Garbage Out, ascending towards The Computer Is Your Friend. This is a Type B case of Not Merely A Windmill: The main character knows what JOSHUA is up to, but nobody believes him.
Reasonable Authority Figure: General Beringer, who not only turned out to be right on every significant point, but was one of the very few people in the movie who had a rational, well-thought out reason for every decision he made (even the incorrect ones).
McKittrick isn't too far off this trope either. He doesn't seem to buy the FBI profiler's assertion that David was turned by the Soviets, and tries chatting with David to find out what's going on. His only problem is that he can't buy David's story that WOPR is running a game of its own.
Shown Their Work: The producers had actual bona-fide hackers on hand that they consulted constantly to make sure the Hollywood Hacking was grounded in reality and is still one of the most realistic portrayals to come out of Hollywood. The places where it's wrong were deliberate Rule Of Cool, since the hours of boring number-crunching involved in real hacking would not have made a good movie.
It was perfectly normal to drop your phone into an acoustic coupler and let it wardial all day long, then come home and try logging into the successful numbers by using educated guesses. After all, this movie isn't the Trope Namer for no good reason.
David figured out the password through realistic means - by discovering who wrote the system and investigating his background, successfully guessing that the password might be "Joshua" - the name of Falken's dead son. This kind of social hacking is still done (very successfully) today.
At the time of the movie, the concept of "computer security" was virtually unknown, since most computers weren't connected to anything to begin with.
General Berringer: Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I've come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.
Spiritual Ancestor: The strategy game DEFCON was strongly inspired by the computer representation of nuclear war in WarGames, and Introversion's earlier Uplink was strongly inspired by everything else in the movie. Uplink includes a 'Protovision' server which can be hacked with 'JOSHUA', resulting in the up top games list; you can play a prototype version of Global Thermonuclear War, which spawns a newswire story about a nuclear launch scare.
Storyboarding the Apocalypse: Arguably, the multiple variations of "Global Thermonuclear War" near the end. The list begins with "US First Strike", "USSR First Strike" and the like, but towards the end the scenarios include "Greenland Maximum", "Cambodian Heavy" and "Gabon Surprise". Those darn Gabonese, always causing trouble...
The War Room: Hell, this film's version of NORAD might well be a trope of its own; it was the most expensive set ever built at the time...
It was even far fancier than the real NORAD command and control room, which looked positively poor compared with this (there's a picture in a 1983 book called The Intelligence War).
Truth in Television: At least, November 9, 1979 NORAD saw Mnogo Nukeslaunched by belligerent computer bugs. Later they had a simulated "nuclear attack", though it wasn't exactly software issue. A massive launch was played from the test tape right into the working system while personnel didn't know what the hell is going on. It was down to someone at NORAD to balance what they were seeing on screen and what the radar stations were saying, and decide to tell the President whether World War III was happening or not. And you think you had a bad day at work?
Look closely and you'll see that the two officers are far enough apart that neither of them can reach both keyholes by himself. Since the keys have to be turned simultaneously, shooting one man makes a launch impossible.
Unbuilt Trope: Every hacking-related trope today owes its existence to this movie.
We Will Not Use Photoshop in the Future: JOSHUA manages to subvert all of NORAD's sensors to the point where they only realize that the Soviet Union hasn't launched missiles when they're able to call bases in areas that were already "nuked".
World War III: Thankfully averted, but the threat of it happening because of JOSHUA's actions drives the plot.
You Had Us Worried There: The long delay before the apparently nuked bases confirm that they are OK. While their continued survival would let them know that they hadn't taken a direct hit, presumably the base control officers were waiting for reports from topside that no nuclear missiles had landed near them before calling the all-clear. Be a tad embarrassing if they called away 'Everything's fine' when a Soviet ICBM had had a navigation error and hit five miles away, only to have to call NORAD back a minute later and say 'Um, about that...'
Though that's probably why they called 3 separate bases. Base 1, do you read? <static> Base 2, do you read? <static> Base 3, do you read? Yeah we're still here...a little crispy, and probably not operational, but alive. Mostly.
Tropes found in War Games: The Dead Code include:
Aesop Amnesia: The government apparently completely forgets why they created JOSHUA in the first place and creates RIPLEY, another AI with absolute control over American military assets.
Arc Words: Greetings, Professor Falken. Shall We Play A Game? and A Strange Game. The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play.
Break Out The Museum Piece: JOSHUA was up in Canada controlling a power plant and losing chess games to a Russian. At this point in the film, it is about 20 years old and the only way the day could be saved was by having JOSHUA uploaded into RIPLEY's mainframe.
Camera Sniper: Amy doesn't realize she's being watched through a viewfinder.
Dawson Casting: Amanda Walsh as Annie. She's 27 at the time of shooting and it shows.
Disappeared Dad: Will's father, though there's an explanation: he picked up an infection while out on the field...and that turns out to have been a cover story for the government.
Driven to Suicide: Doctor Falken, in response to the government replacing JOSHUA with RIPLEY, to protect his family from retaliation.
Fake-Out Make-Out: It started out as a real one, but then Annie spotted that they were appearing on television wanted shots, and kissed him again to distract the police.
Heroic Sacrifice: Doctor Falken stays behind to upload the JOSHUA AI into RIPLEY knowing he won't make it out in time to escape the missile she's sent.
He's Dead, Jim: The glasses are knocked off an agent's jogging partner when RIPLEY uses vehicular homicide to wipe out perceived opposition.
Idiot Ball: Will's best friend Dennis, upon realizing he and Will have ended up on the wrong end of DHS. They deliberately leave a jacket with a cellphone in it. He dives for it and uses it to text Will, thus giving the DHS just what they need to track Will's phone.
MacGyvering: Will turns a Pringles can into a signal amplifier for a listening device.
Manly Tears: Will, on hearing from Professor Falken that everything he knew about his dad's death was just a cover story.
Mexican Standoff: JOSHUA and RIPLEY get into one near the end, with JOSHUA threatening to start a global thermonuclear war if RIPLEY tries to self destruct via nuclear warhead.
Not What It Looks Like: Will in The Dead Code has a computer programmer father and a biotechnician mother, so he knows a lot about computers and biological and chemical compounds. Guess what RIPLEY thinks he is?
Oh Crap: the moment the humans realize that RIPLEY, being forced to self-destruct, means she moves the target from Philadelphia, PA to Washington, DC — where they're all standing.