Currently viewing the tag: "nuclear war"

folderiexEpisode 2: “Fallout”

Oh, right, fallout. That thing we forgot about in the first episode. The thing that makes nukes more than just aesthetically terrifying clouds in the distance.

This is a tight, fearful episode. A storm is coming from Denver, and not knowing what kind of bomb went off, the people of Jericho are terrified of what those clouds may bring down upon them. Emily is still outside of town, clueless as to what has happened. She meets the two escaped criminals (oh yeah, that happened) who are impersonating deputies, and who have killed the sheriff and kidnapped Deputy Jimmy and Deputy Occasionally-Mean Guy.

I hate when apocalyptic fiction goes straight to “oooh, rogues are on the loose because society has broken down!” if only because a nuke is a lot more interesting than a dude with a teardrop tattoo. However, Emily versus the fake cops works better than it might. It’s drawn out tension, which is enhanced when she brings the men to the Richman ranch (girl, cops do not have mustaches like that — but it’s a neck tattoo peeking out that gives it away) and has to communicate with Bonnie in subtle signing that this is a problem. Plus, we have two relatively competent ladies here, which is nice.

This episode does signal two obligatory difficulties for our characters in a nuke setting. Cons on the loose, and the invisible peril of fallout. But though we don’t know everything about the show yet, we do already know that this isn’t Testament. This is a CBS show. It’s going to be about network TV-level of grim survival, not about slowly wasting away. And, you know, a tv show needs characters.

In short, though the episode is well done, and though people might die, this episode doesn’t give you an apocalyptic stomach ache. Just a little anxiety, and a touch of claustrophobia as the townspeople race to get their shelters ready, and Bonnie and Emily try to casually outwit the cons.

Back in Jericho, there’s a great scene where the cops have grabbed every single book about nuclear anything from the library, and one is Our Friend the Atom (“some friend” notes Gray Anderson bitterly). Hawkins again knows a little too much about what do in case of nuclear fallout — or he’s read this manual I keep almost buying because of its perfect balance of creepy and cheesy graphic design — but his explanation is only “I was a cop in St. Louis, and after 9/11 we got up to speed.”

The town’s shelter doesn’t have a working air filter, and Gray Anderson will definitely be using that in his weird macho war with Mayor Green. For once, he may have a point. Actually he has one a lot, but he’s still annoying.

Towns people are taking stuff from Gracie’s store, but she stops Skyler from grabbing a diet soda (asserting her property rights, while still accepting that emergency food is being taken! Gracie is also kind of the town gossip and sort of unpleasant, but she’s not a villain, and Dale has a serious loyalty to her. All of this is interesting to me.) This leads to Dale and Skyler bonding in her sealed up house. Dale slept on Gracie’ store floor the night before, because he clearly has nowhere else to go now that he hasn’t got a mom. Skyler may not have a mom anymore either, and a sad conversation about that as the fallout-drenched rain falls brings the nerd and the mean girl closer together.

This is the first episode where Jake being in charge is assumed. Basically, this town cannot function without male Green leadership. No wonder Gray Anderson is tired of it. Hawkins is told to fix the HAM radio, and finds secret messages, then says he can’t get the thing working. Much mystery. All the mystery. We see Hawkins’ family for the first time, as they huddle together in the basement. They are not entirely likable, but they are intriguing. There is clearly tension between the son, the daughter, the wife, and Hawkins. Hawkins’ wife Darcy tells him “you always know something” and he says not to ask questions. What does he know? Is he a terrorist? Law enforcement? CIA? NSA?

Most of the scenes of people packing up bags with 90 minutes to spare are good. And the scenes of other townsfolk sealing up their houses is deliberately very early War on Terror. It’s definitely less excessive than the 9/11isms in the 2005 War of the Worlds, but it brings back mentions of how to be safe from a dirty bomb or chemical attack, if you’re the right age.

Eric — the insufferable junior version of his father — has to lecture a bar full of douchebags to go to shelter so they don’t die of radiation sickness. Good thing he has a flaw, which is his affair with the uninteresting Mary, who owns the bar. Eric’s wife isn’t interesting either.

(Somehow I hate a lot of these characters when I stop to think about, but I keep on watching. Actually, Jake may be an asshole who disappeared for five years, but I don’t blame him.

Basically, everyone is annoying except for Jake and Bonnie, and usually Heather and Stanley, but I feel like I need to apologize for finding Skeet Ulrich slightly attractive.)

Finally, realizing there just isn’t enough shelter for everyone in town, Jake decides to put people into the salt mines just in time. He, however, has heard Emily using the police radio to call for help. Which annoys me, because girl, you know nukes have happened. You’re not helpless, and are in fact quite savvy in your standoff with the cons. So you do have the capacity to realize that if Denver has been nuked, police don’t give a shit about your personal peril. Really, this is all just so Jake can come and save the day. One of the cons grabs Bonnie, Jake shoots the other con. Emily shoots the one who has Bonnie, and then she stands catatonic, so that Jake must hustle her into the Richman’s storm cellar. Unfortunately for this plot and later ones, Jake has much better chemistry with the painfully peppy brunette Heather than he ever will with sad Emily.  I mean, they flirt while in peril and it almost works.

Instead, we get Jake saying he wanted to keep Emily safe, but she says she’s “never safe when you’re around.” So, to reiterate, both Jake and Hawkins are mysterious people. And Emily is a school teacher, so that means she can shoot people, but then feel awful about it. This is — and Heather’s random technical skills — is the extent of female competence on the show. We’ll get to that, once it becomes truly tedious. So far, things are just fast-paced and stressful on the show. And that’s working very well.

The final scene — pop song propelled yet again — shows townspeople in the shelters, and then Hawkins putting pins into various cities. It sure looks like the nukes hit more than just Denver and Atlanta. (Oops, Pittsburgh was one. Pittsburgh AND Philly? Musicians can’t handle visiting both, how can nukes?)

downloadSpoilers ahead.

Oh my God, Raymond Briggs, The Snowman was traumatic enough.

The chipper, addled senior citizens of Briggs’ short 1982 comic are aggressively out of touch. Jim Bloggs is cheerful and convinced that the government will save them from impending war, even if he has enough sense to take the prospect seriously. His worrywart wife Hilda thinks there’s time to reprimand her husband for swearing, and for messing up the house. There isn’t.

The preparation is careful and deliberate. Jim follows civil defense instructions to the letter. Except that he carefully builds an inner, fallout-proof sanctum in their house, but then fails to remember that they were supposed to stay inside it for 14 days.

What first appears to be goofy, can-do, learned it from the blitz spirit becomes sort of hamfisted and impossibly oblivious in time. Nobody could actually be this stupid, right?

However, after long, overly detailed build-up, the moment the bomb drops is amazing and nauseating, which is no small feat for a comic. The art is flawless. Pastoral home lived in by two round-faced seniors turns into grim and grimmer. Any aesthetic echos of The Snowman makes both comics much worse.

Yet, they’re both so dumb. Impossibly dumb, unless they are really simple folk. Yet, one can more easily imagine simple folk not trying as hard as Jim and Hilda do to survive. It’s like they almost would have made it, but no, they never had a chance.

The reader knows. We know Jim and Hilda are sick long before they do. We know that the smell of roasted meat in the air isn’t barbecue. The chipper cluelessness of both of them is too much to believe or stand. And that’s the genius of it. The condemnation of doing your bit, the sympathy towards and gentle mocking of people who trust the government to not leave them in the post-apocalyptic lurch. Who assume that if you have the right checklist, nuclear war will be nothing but a bit of a bump in the road. We’ll tighten our belts and ration food for a time, but then we’ll be fine. Not so. Not so.

The end is so on the nose, it’s practically WarGames. You know, “strange game…the only way to win is not to play” as it applies to global thermonuclear war. It’s not hard to figure out the meaning of Hilda and Jim passing away from radiation sickness, while Jim quietly recites “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He doesn’t know why that bit of stirring, stern, sincere poetry comes to mind. But we do.

folderiexIn which I bravely begin to rewatch the 2006-2008 cult, yet also CBS TV show Jericho, so as to always have Tuesday Apocalypse fodder in the weeks to come. The show stars Skeet Ulrich, Lennie James, and other luminaries, but don’t hold the Skeet part against it. Also, there is going to eventually be libertarian subtext, but you have got to be patient.

Episode 1: “Pilot”

Jericho begins with a Killers song, which might be the dealbreaker for some of you folks. But it’s one of the catchier ones. And, as we follow Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) driving from San Diego to home in Jericho, Kansas, the band’s semi-nonsensical lyrics hint at the plot to come. “When there’s nowhere else to run/Is there room for one more son?…the cold hearted boy I used to be/ I got soul/but I’m not a soldier.” Angst! Prodigal son! It works! It’s the mid aughts!

And technically, actually, the show begins with its eerie, minimal theme music, and the sound of morse code. That’s the show for you. Forever warring between legitimately unnerving and “emotions must be propelled by pop songs.”

Jake pulls into town, and meets several of our main characters before he makes it to the old family home in order to claim his inheritance. There’s the goofy farmer Stanley Richman (Brad Beyer) and his stern sister Bonnie (Shoshannah Stern), who is deaf. There’s the frustrating and blonde Emily (Ashley Scott) who is The Ex. Jake gives a different answer each person who asks where he has been for the past five years. We know he’s either a pathological liar, or he’s ashamed of something. There’s also the moderately annoying IRS agent, who is auditing the Richman farm, but she isn’t much of a character yet.

Jake’s mom is Leslie Knope’s mom, though much less bad-ass in this role. His dad is Raymond Tusk on House of Cards. His bearded brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) is married to the local doctor, but having an affair with the local tavern owner. Oh, and Johnston Green — the dad — is also the mayor of town, and has been for 100 billion years.

We also meet Dale (Erik Knudsen), employed at the town busybody Gracie’s store (she is starting to doubt your commitment to sparklemotion).  And we see his crush, mean girl Skyler, who will soften later. We meet the cops, the most prominent being Jimmy (the goofy one) and the other guy (the douchey one). And we meet new in town Robert Hawkins, who just drips with mystery.

Having realized his beloved grandfather is dead, Jake decides to leave town sans inheritance. (I was never quite sure why people didn’t tell him in earlier scenes. I suppose when he tells Stanley and Emily he’s there to visit, they must think Jake just means visit the old man’s grave. But only TV cuts justify the jump from family home to grandfather’s grave.)

And then our build-up begins. TV, radio, and cell phones go out. The music is horror-delicate and menacing. Deputy Jimmy’s son is the first one to see the mushroom cloud. He’s playing hide and seek with his sister, and has climbed onto the roof, and we see his back to the camera as he stares aghast. His little sister, whining a little, says “no fun, Woody, you have to hide better.” Here the show has the sense to show a little kid first in dumbfounded horror, then in tears. You don’t need to know your Cold War history intimately to know that you should weep if you see a mushroom cloud.

On the highway, Jake sees the cloud with his wide, Skeet Ulrich eyes and crashes into another car full of similarly distracted people. A woman named Heather (Sprague Grayden) — who will immediately begin dancing the line between endearing and annoyingly cute Mary Sue for the rest of the series — sees the cloud while we only see the reflection in the school bus window. She is on a field trip with a bunch of pipsqueaks who will soon need protecting. At the Richman ranch, Bonnie stares transfixed from her porch, until her brothers pulls her away.

It’s all fantastic. All beautifully shot. It’s restrained, but palpable sickness. Something unimaginable has happened, but it has happened far enough away that everyone is physically fine, making it all the more surreal.

The rest of the plot involves the town freaking out a bit, trying to get organized. We see a power struggle between Mayor Green and a guy named Gray Anderson. Hawkins (Lennie James) knows a lot about preparing for something like this, which might be a little odd.

And basically, Jake has to hobble away from his own car wreck, and go save the school bus that has crashed due to acute “holy shit, a nuke-itis.” He apocalypse-cute-meets Heather, and saves all the children, and even performs a tracheotomy on one. He returns to town to find a curtly proud father, and a very relieved mother. He has truly returned home now.

In the mean time, poor teenage Dale has come home to a terrifying message left on his answer machine. His mother, seemingly vacationing with her gross boyfriend, had called to check in, but the message cuts off with “oh my God! What is that?” It’s clear wherever she is has been hit by a nuke as well. A scene where Dale listens to the message over and over again in the dark is correctly awful. So is the moment where Dale comes to a neighborhood meeting with the news, and needs to clarify that his mother was not in Denver, but Atlanta. We now know that two bombs have gone off.

The safety of Jericho is too safe. The brief panic is too CBS primetime, though at least the townspeople have their moment of it. Nobody — arguably since Threads and The Day After in the 1980s — really has the guts to portray pissing yourself levels of terror, or catatonic horror in response to nuclear strikes. And I think that’s how a lot of people would react. Even the heroes should have a moment of dumbfounded stillness. That’s why I love the pilot to The Walking Dead, and the first half of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In these stories, even the strong patriarch needs a moment to express, than rise above, his bafflement and fear. Unfortunately, slightly tiresome patriarch Mayor Johnston Green isn’t given quite enough of that moment here. And his wife’s dread-cry of “Oh, Johnston” isn’t quite nuke-horror. It’s more like the dog got hit by a car level of upset. One can argue that there’s good eye acting (see the extras in Titanic as the stern sinks, for a perfect example) here, but it’s still a bit too subtle for my taste.

On the other hand, Jericho is supposed to be in a sweet spot. Everyone is safe, and until starvation or fallout, or other end of the world threats some a-knocking, perhaps a dazed sort of disconnect is believable. This is only the first day.

We have had too many inspirational speeches (though one that fails) from the mayor and from his rival Gray Anderson, and too much TV logic, but we also have two mysterious men, family drama, and moderately interesting side characters in a small town dealing with the unimaginable. Not bad.

Though the woman who plays the one that got away from Jake is one of the weakest actresses on the show — and their chemistry has never been there, ever — her final scenes in the pilot are good. Her character Emily has missed it all. She was driving to pick up her fiance in Wichita, and only when birds begin falling from the sky at dusk does she realize something is terribly wrong. The final scene leans too heavily on a moody pop song, just like the opening scenes did, but the camera pulling back on bird armageddon is a good capper for the episode.

r4ru2qdrwzm954iylcmr“As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders: Anders is the best full-time staff member who has ever worked under the banner of anything remotely affiliated with Gawker. Her short story, unlike so many short stories, contains happenings — big happenings. The end of the world is already over and done with when our story begins, but that’s just the start. The end of the world, a genii, and lots of quips about theater, this story has most everything you need. It’s funny, it’s unexpected, and the disparate elements work much better together than they have any right to. The ending is touching as hell, and doesn’t go for the most obvious “and she didn’t remember anything” trope. The prose is witty, smart, and not New Yorker obtuse. It’s direct, but it’s not simple, or stupid, no matter the fanciful absurdity of the plot. Read it.

Leven 7 by Mordecai Roshwald:  This 1959 novel has some of those short story-like problems with (arguably) unnecessary opacity. We do not know the enemy country of our protagonist’s country. His name is X-127, and he’s among the crowd of special military folks who are to be send underground permanently in case of nuclear war. Not for safety reasons, but rather so that the most well-protected people in the nation are those who are able to push The Button. These individuals are to marry and have children and have a whole new society without ever leaving the bunker again. [Spoilers ahead] X-127 doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life under the ground, but he doesn’t really question his situation until another man has a mental breakdown rather than push The Button once the war begins. During life below, X-127 gets a horrible mate, he tries to cope, he learns about music, and eventually those on Level 7 realize that radiation is affecting the folks in different bunkers all over. Eventually it hits their neighbors at 6. It also hits the unnamed enemy. There is communication with them, and exchange of of oddly juvenile quips, and then they go silent, too. Finally X-127 is the only one left, and he passes away on the final page. The book isn’t bad, but it’s less artful in its basicness than the Anders story, say. The details of the conflict are missing for a logical, albeit every society sort of reasoning. We do eventually learn that the danger of automation is part of the message — The Button didn’t need to be pushed, it pushed itself. The world blew itself up. As far as humanity (or some version) going dark novels, Leven 7 is not one of the best. Worth a quick read, however, as it still brings the vital nausea that nuclear doom fiction must.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin: To clarify, there’s nausea like the ending of A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even the more prosaic On the Beach, which is welcome. And then there’s just unrelentingly unpleasant. Strangely enough, this Young Adult novel that doesn’t even involve the end of all humanity manages to be grimmer still than we’re all doomed stories. Perhaps because nuclear war fiction, even when the worst happens, can be seen as a crisis to be averted — with Rod Serling saying this is only one of many possible futures, so beware. A novel about what happens after the Yellowstone Caldera goes off has no teaching moments, just the unsatisfying message that nature will fucking destroy you if she feels like it. But it’s not just the bleak descriptions of endless ash, and dark skies that makes this book such a slog. There’s rape, murder, more murder, probably cannibalism (our hero is given meat by a scary guy, and it tastes like wild pig, but it’s got a disturbingly long bone) and none of it is literary, and none of feels like it has a purpose. I am usually not one to complain about survival tales, since they were my obsession as a child, but this book just feels like a laundry list of one. And it certainly seems absurd to complain in an apocalypse themed review series that there is nothing redeeming about this tale of woe. Yet, in spite of Alex, our 16-year-old protagonist, finding love, it feels that way. Life is going to be exhausting in the wake of the supervolcano going off, and that’s all. Maybe at the end of the day, I prefer the tales of human annihilation to the paint by numbers survival descriptions — and this is long-ass book. Perhaps it’s the vintage, yet rarely kitschy threat of the big one. Anyway, perhaps I’m the nihilist, but somehow this book still feels more like one. (I’ll probably still read the rest of the damn series if I get bored.)

Silo, a short film by David Soll: This is a short film that feels like it should be a cartoon — so much so that I can picture how it might look. It’s kind of silly, and I have a million questions about the ending. On the other hand, as io9’s Lauren Davis noted, the setting of an actual ICBM silo makes it fascinating to look at. This film is cute, I just am not sure it should be, all things considered.

There Will Come Soft Rains, a Soviet short film based on the short story by Ray Bradbury: This is is a haunting little piece of art. I don’t know the short story, but I do know enough of Bradbury to be unsurprised that the robot with its deep, scary Russian automation is first disturbing, and then I feel bad for it. I won’t spoil anything, because it’s all about the animation, and its deeply distressing loveliness. I will say that in the first two minutes, I got a genuine chill down my spine. I stopped chewing on gummy bears and just watched. Do the same.

[Via: Jesse Walker]

testament-1983-ross-harris-roxanne-zal-jane-alexander-lukas-haas-rebecca-demornay-kevin-costner-pic-2A PBS production from 1983 that ended up in theaters, and with an Oscar nomination for lead Jane Alexander, Testament came at the end of the last Cold War hot flash, along with Threads and The Day After. Those two were all big, showing every grim — television budgeted — detail of the end of the world, or at least western civilization. Threads, bizarrely, is so excruciating that a numbness — albeit a queasy type — starts to set in by the time nuclear winter rolls round.

In Testament, you wish that were the case. This sneaky, understated movie is the Platonic ideal of real horror. Most nuclear war fiction, even if it is all about one family, town, or city plunged into uncertainty, shows you some pieces of the story. Jericho, Alas, Babylon,  On the Beach, they tell you how we got here, even though there is always a fog of war element. Testament is not interested in the why of anything, it just wants you to look until you can’t stand it anymore. This is just the story of a mom, her three kids, and her husband who never comes home from work in San Francisco on the day the bombs are dropped.

The movie takes its time on the family, the totally banal family living in the little California town. It’s about them and how they could be anyone. This could be happening for any reason, and whichever reason that is is bullshit. Even near the end, when Jane Alexander’s matriarch Carole falls to her knees and cries “Who did this?! God damn you!” she’s not asking about the socio-political explanation. It, in some ways, doesn’t matter. There is one tiny glimpse of television new that says nukes have been dropped, then there is a bright light. A few radio broadcasts tell us little later, but they mostly just mean a fraying connections to the outside world.

Things seem alright for a while in town, and the acting and the terrible regularness of it all confirms this. I find myself again feeling skeptical about the lack of hysteria. Hell, maybe “The Shelter” is most accurate then I thought. Why does nobody crack up? Haven’t they seen movies like this one? Jane Alexander is good, but she is mostly a little too composed.

But the everyday living facade, and the ease of watching it for the audience, starts to crack after the town puts on the school play that Carole was preparing for when the movie began. Twenty Kindergartners preform the Pied Piper, and the adults in the audience watch and cry because the see the familiarity: mistakes were made, and the children are going to pay for it. They cannot be trusted with the children. They are why they won’t get to have lives at all.

There are several more plateaus of regular living. Surviving requires working with the other people on town, and it does seem to work. Then another spike of horror comes when Carole’s friend is wandering in the rain holding a drawer that will serve as a coffin for his baby. Still, the food rations, the lines, the organization of everything sends the inevitability of thing back a few weeks. There’s the symbol of hope that is the radio, manned by a level-headed old neighbor. Carole’s oldest boy visits him, and then helps him check on the rest of the townspeople. He rides his bike, which is his talisman that reminds him of his dad, who would pester him into riding with him. Near the end, he has to ride his dad’s bike. He rides it past scenes of graves, and of graveyards filling past capacity. Eventually the bodies are burned instead.

This movie is a sneak, in the most stomach-aching fashion. The town is staying organized, until the police chief suddenly has a subtle, and entirely real nervous breakdown during a town meeting in church. The kids are bratty or earnest in turn until they are quieted by radiation sickness. The daughter is daddy’s girl, and rather dull, until the conversation she has with her mother about sex culminates in her tearfully saying that that love, and sharing, and all that will never happen for her, and she knows it. There are sentimental trimmings, including– like On the Beach — an overly intrusive soundtrack.

But the horror wins out. Fiendishly abruptly, things falls apart and the graveyards fill, the littlest boy is suddenly sick in the bathroom. After a few minutes, he’s wrapped in a sheet. That’s the progression of the movie now. It picks up speed as the family runs out of time.

Good parents are heroes in the most terrifying way. A good parent is supposed to give up their life for their child. The only thing more frightening an idea than that is the parent who can do nothing except watch their children slowly die. It’s happened, and it will always happen because of cruel accident and disease. But movies like this can’t help but remind me of what the US did to parents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It — the government that is just another word for things we choose to do together — made parents watch their children die. The power of the bombs were the way they killed slowly or in a millisecond. The latter gave us shadows on sidewalks, grim poetry and metaphor, and at least a complete lack of suffering for the victim. Radiation sickness, on the other hand, is slow agony. Nothing artful in that, just vomiting, and diarrhea, and hair loss, and nausea, and dizziness, and death. This movie, and other apocalyptic fiction, were intended to ward off what they showed on screen (though nothing is as grim as it would be, not even the ’80 dread trio). And they worked, if the tales of Reagan watching The Day After are as simple as they sound. But I can’t help but be reminded that that nightmare already was done to thousands of people. Our Cold War fiction is the horrors that were avoided. We are never as interested in the ones we caused. Too prosaic.

Testament is propelled by its characters — simple ones, who by rights should have stayed that way. We shouldn’t be watching them at all, because this shouldn’t have happened. But it’s not nihilistic. It’s not Threads, where it just pounds at you, screaming that this must never be, and if it does we’ll be brutes, and then there will be nothing left of humanity — because, seemingly, humanity is a thin skin over a pit of savagery. For a movie about the complete lack of control over saving yourself, and your loved ones, Testament highly values the idea of being good and decent as you die. It’s a feeble fading away with nothing to be done in one way. In another, you remember your loved ones who left, you help your neighbors, and you don’t become a monster. The smaller this movie gets — and it is oh, so small by the final — the more clearly it demonstrates that one family is the world, and the world is just about to end, but perhaps it ended as well as it could.

Ansel_Elgort_43600Once, unsure what sort of movie I was in the mood for, I asked twitter if I should go for nuclear war or ’80s teen movie. My then-colleague Tim Cavanaugh answered the only logical way — why choose, when there’s WarGames?

Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, earnest ’80s pleas for peace, and menacing Cold War terrors, and the impossibility of computers that can actually communicate with computers; this movie fulfilled those two genre urges like no other one can. It is dated in all the right ways. (Why is dated a pejorative again? I love dated.)

I don’t presume to know anything about hacking, except for what I learned from Cracked lists about what it doesn’t look like. But WarGames, the story of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman almost starting global thermonuclear war when he thinks he’s playing a game with a computer named WOPR (War Operation Plan Response)/”Joshua” is reportedly a pretty solid portrayal of it. The exception is the cinema-ready self-awareness of the computer itself, but certainly the scene where David calls different computers to find one with a modem — thereby finding his way to Joshua — is the opposite of the Hackers-style flash and dash bullshit. The movie explains backdoor passwords, and shows much more than frantic typing in order to explain how computers function or react. This seriousness is why the Vegas hacker conference is named in the movie’s honor. Or rather, confusingly, it is called DEFCON — for the NORAD levels of defense readiness which we all learned from various alien/nuke movies. (DEFCON is important to the movie, and puns are great, but that’s still a silly name. Why not JoshuaCon? WOPRCon? MatthewBroderickCon?)

This is a fairly slow-paced movie. The acting is good enough to go unnoticed.  The hackerness is all respected, meaning the computer intrigue before the accidental near-nuclear war is given its due. Later there’s David being taken by the FBI into NORAD. He escapes, and he and lady friend Ally Sheedy make their way to Joshua’s creator to plead with him to save the day. In true Cold War (movies, if nothing else) nihilism style, Joshua’s creator is initially too depressed about the inevitably of nuclear doom to do anything to stop the events. But just in time, he is convinced, and the three heroes make their way back to NORAD just in time to play the great, metaphorical tic-tac-toe that ends Joshua’s attempts to kill us all with the terrifying fiction of a Soviet ICBM assault.

The computer’s famous ending lines are cheesy, and they somehow work within the earnestness of the moment. Tic-tac-toe/Mutually Assured Destruction is a: “Strange game, the only winning move is not to play.” (So “How about a nice game of chess?”) Notably, before Joshua is tricked, then taught — an AI that learns, also an alarming concept! — with the game of tic-tac-toe, the military men at NORAD must be convinced to hold off on a counter-strike against the (non-existent) Soviet assault on their own.  Now, there’s an endlessly topical lesson, applicable to the US and Israel and other muscly nations — maybe you don’t automatically fire back, melting a few civilians in the process. Maybe you take a minute to consider your options, even when you are being attacked. Maybe you just don’t play.

In spite of the evergreen lesson of don’t kill everybody — and don’t let it happen by automation, which pops up in all manner of cold war fiction, for good reason — WaGames is solidly of its time. This makes talk of remaking it particularly baffling. What is a WarGames from 2014 or ’15 even about? Preventing a fake 9/11? There could be espionage and government secrets, but any variation would logically make this a different movie altogether. Personal computers are not the aliens that they were in 1983 — we now check them like we used to smoke cigarettes, with the same thoughtless tic. And we may be looking nervously at Russia more often than we were a few months ago, but fear of The Bomb is more passe than even space travel. Whether that is unwise remains to be seen — hopefully forever.