'WarGames' -- big issues and teen-age heroics.
John Badham is the busiest filmmaker around, with two shiny new pictures to his name - ''WarGames'' and ''Blue Thunder'' - and both looking like major hits. He certainly knows his business: how to catapult the action scenes, build suspense with razor-sharp editing, pull extra mileage from understated performances.Skip to next paragraph
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He even strives for deeper meanings. ''Blue Thunder'' posits a sinister political plot as the sparkplug for its frantic (and endless) foot, car, and helicopter chases. ''WarGames'' tackles the formidable subject of nuclear war, treating the worldwide balance of terror with a blend of wry skepticism, homespun philosophizing, and blunt humor.
Of the two, WarGames is by far the better movie - not a ''Dr. Strangelove'' for the '80s, but playing in the same ballpark. If anything can make a dent in the ''Return of the Jedi'' bonanza, all signs point to this canny mixture of big issues and teen-age heroics wrapped in flashy video-arcade aesthetics.
The main character is David, a likable high-schooler with a flair for computers and a streak of mischief in his nature. Bold but irresponsible, he's not above tapping into his school's memory bank to boost his miserable grades. The plot gets going when he unwittingly dials into a military computer that's used for rehearsing World War III.
It's a lonely computer, we find out, and it just loves playing its awful ''game.'' But it seems nobody remembered to teach it to know the difference between simulating a war and really waging one. After cracking the security codes, David spends an afternoon tossing commands into his new electronic friend , thinking it's all in fun - then learns from the evening news that he almost touched off Armageddon a few hours ago.
Properly shaken, he vows to be a good boy from now on. But the computer renews contact, insisting they finish the scenario that's bubbling through its microchips. In a military ''war room,'' the government struggles to outwit the berserk machine, while David - on the run from all those angry adults - finds clues and solutions in unlikely places.
It's a clever package. With his yen for computers, David will strike a chord with every kid who's felt the lure of a Pac-Man machine. Others can identify with his bright and capable girlfriend, who has more on the ball than our hero at times and lends a romantic angle to boot.
In another direct pitch to the teen-age crowd, the authority figures are played for (sometimes vulgar) laughs, from the henpecked father to the foul-mouth general. To top it off, the computer has a voice suspiciously like E.T.'s cramped but charming tenor. There's something for everyone, especially if ''everyone'' belongs to the young age group Hollywood especially loves to woo.
For all its filmmaking savvy and laudably serious overtones, though, I have very mixed feelings about ''WarGames.''
On one hand, I'm pleased that a potentially huge hit is addressing such desperately important matters as the arms race and nuclear brinkmanship. I congratulate Badham and his screenwriters (Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes) for questioning the status quo and undermining some conventional wisdom. I particularly commend them for taking a stand or two that aren't homogenized and Hollywoodized in a fatuous attempt to please everyone; people who believe in ''winnable'' atomic wars, for example, get roundly rebutted in the final scenes.
Yet there's something much too neat, too smug about Badham's approach. The movie has about three endings during its last half hour, and each new climax ties some complicated issue into a tidy, reassuring little package that's as deceptive as it is appealing. By the grand finale, everyone in sight - from teens to generals, plus the errant computer - cozily agrees about the futility of nuclear combat and the pointlessness of atomic weaponry as a solution to anything.