The original Wargames is one of my favorite movies. It’s very similar in theme to Fail Safe, but less dire in tone and a lot more fun. It’s sorely dated with its 1980s trappings of acoustic modems and monochrome monitors, and its given a War on Terror update in The Dead Code. Now, the government is using an artificial intelligence called RIPLEY to identify, profile, locate, and eradicate terrorists. RIPLEY has the power to automatically scramble military firepower to drop bombs on terrorist camps, but also has begun taking the initiative to track cells on domestic soil. The administrators of the system admit this isn’t strictly constitutional, but with the Patriot Act it’s probably under their mandate, but don’t tell anyone.
In this case, RIPLEY’s latest idea is to set up an online gambling website that’s hooked into a videogame (creatively called RIPLEY) wherein the player pilots a drone aircraft armed with an array of nuclear and biological weaponry over a major metropolitan city. The goal is to cause the most human casualties in the least amount of time, and if successful, the winner is rewarded with prize money. RIPLEY, in the meantime, adds the winner’s name to its watch-list and profiles them as a domestic terrorist. The movie’s reasoning behind this is that the game requires detailed knowledge of nuclear and bioterrorism. Naturally, your first thought is “uh, yeah, or the player is simply lucky, is cheating, or has a personal interest in sarin gas deployment systems.” Enter Will Farmer, teenage hacker who stumbles upon the RIPLEY game while fixing his neighbor’s computer and unlocks the final “DEAD CODE” level. He stupidly logs in as himself, gambles on the highest difficulty for the most prize money, and finds himself drawing RIPLEY’s attention when he wins the game.
It’s a weak premise, especially when you consider the government’s inability to learn from its previous mistakes with the W.O.P.R. system that nearly triggered World War 3– but I’m willing to let a lot of stupid decisions slide when it comes to the U.S. government. Turn the entire U.S. military complex over to a computer with a sexy female voice? Sure, why not? Why does RIPLEY bother sending the prize money to Will when it could just send a SWAT team to kick down his door? Why is Will, a normal high school student, so hard to track down? Federal agents detain one of his friends on an airplane, but somehow manage to miss Will, who at this point is unaware of the plot against him, and is on the same plane. How is it possible that they didn’t catch Will at the many, many security checkpoints at an airport?
The second act of the movie turns into Bourne-ish chases through Philadelphia, where RIPLEY’s ability to mobilize law enforcement fluctuates wildly and inconsistently. RIPLEY can re-task major spy satellites to track cell phones and order air strikes on American cities without any form of congressional or executive oversight, but can only send a couple of guys in a black sedan to chase Will and his girlfriend? Their escapes from pursuit are entirely implausible, and I have to repeat my frustrations that computer hacking is an inherently long, tedious, boring activity that is in no way cinematic.
The ending is an expected clusterfuck of technobabble and Star Trekkish “we need to overload the system!” hand-waving as Will tries to overload a major government supercomputer by rallying the online gaming community to over-play RIPLEY’s game. Professor Falken and W.O.P.R. from the old movie also return as old allies to help Will, although this turns into a lot. of. pausing. while. the. actors. type. stuff. into. Joshua’s. computer. It all boils down to pitting RIPLEY against the collective gamers of the Intarwebs and the rejuvenated W.O.P.R., who has again been handed the Big Red Button to America’s nuclear arsenal. The final scenes are very reminiscent of the original movie, with a lot of watching the computers battle to infinite stalemates, but somehow it all makes a lot less sense, as I never once figured out what RIPLEY’s goal was, or why it had gone berserk. In the end, they just repeat the climax where they’re forced to teach the A.I. the futility of mutually-assured destruction.
The movie is actually very competently shot, with some good special effects, although most of the cinematography and score are very derivative and prone to the Bourne-chic fad. The younger actors look far too old to be high school students, and bringing back Dr. Falken with such a weak replacement actor was a very bad move. More cringe-inducing decisions include RIPLEY’s over-sexed “play with me, big boy,” voice and her ability to read lips like 2001‘s HAL computer. And you’re telling me that they can’t just walk into the server room with a fire axe and give RIPLEY a “reprogramming” or she’ll launch missiles, but she’ll stand by and happily let hackers fuck with her software all day? With a few more script revisions, this might have turned into a much tighter story with a more credible resolution. Instead, out of ideas, the movie just pirates the old ending.
Still, I will admit that as far as direct-to-video movies go, this is on the upper-tier in terms of sheer production value. It’s nothing spectacular, and it’s not nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but as a Wargames sequel its heart is in the right place (if that makes any sense). But it’s not worth buying and not really worth renting except as a curiosity. Its war on terror theme is forgotten almost as soon as the chase scenes begin, as it seems the movie doesn’t really have anything to say on that score except that putting a supercomputer with complete autonomy in charge of the country’s weaponry is a bad idea. If you want to see a better movie with the same message, I’d try Colossus: The Forbin Project. Or, y’know, Wargames.