The 80’s were a fun decade for me; I lived through the whole Breakdance craze of the 80’s, with b-boys and girls breakin’ on the streets, I witnessed many a dance battle during my lunch break in school, I lived for collecting comic books (still do actually), I played street football, I watched ‘V’ and ‘Knight Rider’ religiously on television, and though I was having a blast, I wasn’t fully aware that the 80’s was also a decade were people lived “under the shadow of a mushroom cloud” meaning that nuclear holocaust loomed heavy on everyone’s mind. Dying in a nuclear attack was a very real possibility on peoples’ minds back in those days. Those were the days of the Cold War, when the Americans and the Russians had the whole world frightened with their nuclear possibilities. Though neither of the countries ever engaged in actual war, they had the nuclear capabilities to erase themselves from the planet, all they had to was press a button and we’d vanished in a matter of seconds, turned to cinders by political madmen.
During the 50’s, people were very afraid of the Atomic Bomb, this fear seeped into popular culture and movies (as fears commonly do) and as a result we got a lot of movies about giant animals who mutated due to radiation exposure. Films like Godzilla (1954), Tarantula (1955) and Them! (1954) appeared as a direct result of this Atomic Fear. The Cold War, which supposedly ended in 1991 spawned its own nuclear themed series of films: The China Syndrome (1979), The Atomic Café (1982), Silkwood (1983), Testament (1983) and the two films I’ll be talking about today: WarGames (1983) and The Manhattan Project (1986), among other films made for television. I decided to talk about both of these films together because they are both about whiz kids who figure out a way to mess with nuclear weapons and the governments defense systems.
In John Badham’s WarGames we meet David (played by a very young Matthew Broderick) a computer whiz kid whose figured out a way to use computers and the internet in his favor. He hacks into airlines and reserves flights to Paris for him and his friends. With a few keystrokes, he both changes his grades and breaks into a video game manufacturers’ data banks to steal their latest video games. Funny thing is how out dated all the technology in this film is! I mean floppy disks where the size of vinyl records for crying out loud! To use the internet they had to hook up a real phone to a machine…it was funny to see all this old technology that at the time must have seemed like cutting edge stuff. Yet it’s still cool to see David hack his way through anything, even if he is using ancient technology, it’s the principal that counts. The guy can get away with bloody murder with a few keystrokes! How cool!
For David, problems arrive one day when he accidentally hacks into a government computer that simulates nuclear war scenarios. David innocently decides to play with the computer, thinking it’s just a game, but suddenly, the game turns real as the computer decides to really activate the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Things get pretty intense, because the fate of the human race rests in the hands of this kid and ‘Joshua’ the governments computer. This film reminded me a lot of all of those movies where computers go bad and want to destroy everything. Films like Stanly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which HAL, the computer that flies a spaceship goes rogue and decides to turn against its creators. It also reminded me of Eagle Eye (2008) starring Shia LaBeouf, yet another film that presents us with the idea of a computer that starts thinking on its own and decides to kill everyone in government because according to it, they are not doing a good job of running the country. This also happens in John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), where an astronaut has to actually reason with a computer (by philosophizing with it) in order to make it understand that earth doesn’t have to be blown up with a nuclear device. In WarGames we have a computer named ‘Joshua’. Will Joshua learn that with nuclear war nobody wins?
WarGames is all about how no one really wants to blow each other up to smithereens, not even the guys who are supposed to press the button want to do it. I liked how WarGames explored that idea; if the time came to push a button that would result in the death of 20 million people, would you do it? Would you press that button? Would you want to be the one responsible for that much death? The film helps us see that no one wants to have that in their conscience; that everybody is that much happier when the bombs don’t go off. It’s the idea that nuclear power is simply too much power in the hands of us bumbling, idiotic, mistake making humans. In the words of one of the characters in the film: “Your defense system sucks!”
There’s lots of tension in those scenes when the computer is just about to blow us all to hell, and I have to hand it to director John Badham for playing with the visuals during those last scenes in the war room. During those scenes, Badham expertly plays with sound, music and editing as if he was directing a philharmonic orchestra, great stuff. WarGames wasn’t the only technology gone bad movie Badham did, he also directed Blue Thunder (1983) where an ultra modern helicopter built for surveillance is taken by its pilot, who has a crisis of conscience as to the helicopters real purpose. He also directed Short Circuit (1986), a film in which a robot designed for military purposes becomes conscious of itself and decides that he doesn’t want to kill, he’d rather dance with Ally Sheedy and chase grass hoppers. So I’d say that this anti-military, anti-war message has been a constant in many of Badham’s films.
In WarGames, David accidentally hacks into the governments computer and thinks he is playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War” with the governments computer, but when he realizes what he’s done, he does his best to stop the computer from starting World War III, which makes him the hero of the film. This is not the case with The Manhattan Project (1986), which portrays the whiz kid as more of a threat because it puts the power of the atomic bomb in the hands of a high school whiz kid named Paul, who thinks it would be a good idea to steal plutonium from a government laboratory that’s in his neighborhood; in order to make his own home made atomic bomb and expose the militaries secret nuclear experiments. Apparently, nobody knows that in this facility the military experimenting with plutonium and nuclear power. Paul thinks the people of his town have a right to know this, so he plans on building a bomb and submitting it as a project for his high school science project.
The whole thing starts when one of the scientists working in the military facility wants to date Paul’s mom. In order to get the kid to like him, the scientist (played by John Lithgow) decides to give Paul a tour of the lab. Paul is thrilled to get a tour of the place, because he is a geeky genius and he loves all that techno stuff. But he soon realizes that these scientists are playing with plutonium. He then decides to steal some of it to create his own bomb.
After that, it’s a game of “let’s chase the whiz kid before he blows us all up” type of deal. Again, same as in WarGames, there are some very tense moments when everyone is afraid to be blow to bits. That whole scene where they are attempting to disarm the bomb, was all played very well, the film ends up being entertaining; the difference between WarGames and The Manhattan Project is that The Manhattan Project gets a little more philosophical with its ideas; it has scenes of the scientist and the kid reasoning out things about the nature of nuclear weapons and the reason for their existence, I guess in a way it has more of an edge to it.
Another difference between these two films is the way their main characters are handled. While David in WarGames comes off as a hero, the same cannot be said for Paul in The Manhattan Project. Some people find the character of Paul controversial because he contradicts himself. He wants to expose the “evil government lab” but creating a nuclear bomb himself, and puts everyone around him in peril. Doesn’t Paul think he’s exposing himself, his family and friends, not to mention his town and hell, a couple of states to the dangers of nuclear holocaust? These questions are definitely worth considering, because when we get down to it, he is actually a terrorist. I guess one could argue that he’s trying to make a point in a very extreme way, or that the kid is simply a confused, messed up product of the times. He is scared of dying in a nuclear attack, but then again, Paul is never portrayed that way. Had they portrayed him as a kid who is up to date with world news, and worried about nuclear attacks, maybe it would have made more sense. Still, I get what they were trying to say with the film, and it’s an interesting premise, also, at one point Paul finds a four leaf clover and he thinks this is a mutation that comes as a result of the secret experiments, so that motivates him to do something, I guess he just went about it the wrong way. My only gripe with the film is that Paul’s actions defy logic and reason, and him being a whiz kid and all, he could have come up with something better. His actions come off as arrogant, he might want to expose the military, but it also seems he simply wants to have the glory of being the first kid to create a nuclear bomb in his own house, I just think they could have developed the character a bit further.
I personally liked WarGames a bit more because it’s more exciting, more cinematic. The Manhattan Project has a television movie feel to it. It does have the excellent John Lithgow to liven things up though; and I’ve always enjoyed his performances, in my book he is a solid actor that should have had a bigger career. In the end, I don’t think The Manhattan Project is a bad film, it does take its anti-war message across, it just does so in a strange way. The main character doesn’t come off as likable at all. In the end, he comes off as a crazy kid who could have killed a hell of a lot of people. He certainly could have found different ways to expose the military base, like maybe a protest? But I guess then we wouldn’t have a movie. In the end, what I like about both of these films is the message they want to give us: blowing people up with nuclear weapons is just not cool, pass it on.
Rating WarGames (1983): 4 out of 5
Rating The Manhattan Project (1986): 3 ½ out of 5