'WarGames: The Dead Code' Will Leave You Rooting For Global Thermonuclear War

(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrical released movies. In this edition: we take a look at a DTV sequel to a beloved '80s film featuring a trouble-making Matthew Broderick and a dead child named Joshua.)

WarGames was a big hit back in the summer of 1983 despite its dark subject matter – nuclear war, millions of lives at risk, teens forgetting to put lids on trash cans – and its self-contained story and highly satisfying conclusion left no need for a follow-up. 25 years later, though, some a**hole decided to make one anyway.

2008's WarGames: The Dead Code is a direct sequel despite arriving a full quarter of a century later, and audiences reacted by completely ignoring its existence. The film immediately disappeared into the ether, but as a firm believer that every movie deserves a chance – and as someone with a column concerned with DTV sequels to wide releases – I decided to give it a spin. Could it have been unfairly dismissed? Is it deserving of reappraisal and a fan base dedicated to turning it into a cult hit? Should you, dear readers, invest cash money and 100 minutes of your precious time towards seeing it?

For the love of all that's holy, the answer to all three of those questions is a resounding no.

The Beginning

The Cold War saw American kids taught to fear the very real possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, but the main takeaway was that wooden desks can protect you from fire, wind, and radiation. Those fears petered out through the '80s with the impending collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and while we never got bombed, we did get dozens of terrific movies exploiting those fears. 1983's WarGames sits near the top as it successfully blends suspense and drama with humor, heart, and big entertainment.

A young Matthew Broderick leads the film as a teen whose computer skills and knack for getting into trouble unintentionally connect him with NORAD's missile launch simulator – the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), but nicknamed Joshua after the dead son of the man who designed it – triggering a countdown to a very real World War III. With the FBI and US military hot on their trail, out hero and his accidental partner in crime (Ally Sheedy) are forced on the run in the hopes of finding the supposedly deceased professor who built it. What they discover instead is a man disinterested in helping because of grief and a belief that humanity's extinction is already an imminent inevitability.

With his apathy on one side and the military's war-ready aggression on the other, the two teens are seemingly alone in their hope for nuclear winter-free tomorrow, but their sincerity and innocence ultimately pull Prof. Stephen Falken (John Wood) to their cause. The three return to NORAD where they race against a ticking clock in an attempt to teach the computer about the futility of nuclear war. It's a nail-biter, but they succeed, and everyone cheers both onscreen and in the audience where, if you traveled back in time to opening weekend, you just might see a super-cool preteen named Rob (but whose mother calls him Josh because it's the sound he used to make after being breastfed) high-fiving friends and strangers alike in celebration of how much he loves the ending.

The DTV Plot

The core of 2008's WarGames: The Dead Code involves a tech-savvy high-schooler named Will Farmer who accidentally connects with top-secret military computer while looking for an online game to play, which in turn triggers a sequence of events that lead to the endangerment of millions of lives as the computer begins a countdown to military strikes. (Why fix what ain't broken, amirite?) The computer, named RIPLEY but without any explanation as to what the acronym stands for, has designed a video game to draw in potential terrorists posing a threat to the US. How does it work? I'm glad you asked. It's a shooter/drone simulation, and if you pass a certain level – the fifth, reachable in roughly thirty minutes – you're designated a terrorist threat and possibly targeted for termination.

Sounds legit.

With government agents in pursuit, Will heads to Montreal for a chess tournament with his high-school gal pal where they meet a once-again rumored to be dead Prof. Stephen Falken who reveals he's spent the past couple decades betraying the man he once was. See, he designed RIPLEY, began to feel guilty about it, faked his own death (after remarrying and fathering two children), and began working from the chilly shadows of Quebec to end the program. The ace up his sleeve – that he's apparently been waiting to use until two American teens came calling – is Joshua. That's right, he salvaged the WOPR. Now the only chance they have is to teach RIPLEY the futility of... Russian roulette. Yeah, I don't know either.

Talent Shift

The drop here is as steep as you'd probably expect for a DTV sequel releasing a quarter century after the original, but let's start with the talent involved both on and off camera for the 1983 film. The original was only the second feature for both Broderick and Sheedy, but their screen presence is undeniable, making it no surprise that this was only the beginning of life-long careers. With the fresh faces covered – keep an eye out for Michael Madsen and a young-ish John Spencer too – the film adds a few ace character actors with Wood, Barry Corbin, and Dabney Coleman, who round out an overwhelmingly strong and charismatic cast. Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Stakeout) was a reliable, albeit modest, hit-maker, and the writers would go on to gift the eternally under-appreciated Sneakers (1992) upon the world. Hell, the film even boasts the cinematographer from 1968's Bullitt!

With that picture in your head let's move on to the cast and crew behind WarGames: The Dead Code. Stop me when you recognize a name. Matt Lanter is our cardboard hero, Amanda Walsh is his 27 year old high school classmate Annie, Gary Reineke is Prof. Falken's shambling zombie corpse, Chuck Shamata is a nice Canadian gentleman, and Nicolas Wright is our hero's obnoxious best friend Dennis.

No? Nothing? Those are five of our six main actors, and collectively they still show roughly half the talent and charm of Eddie Deezen's left nut (who I neglected to mention also briefly appears in the original film – Deezen, not his nut). The only recognizable face here is Colm Feore (Storm of the Century), and while he's entertainingly over the top with his performance – "Terror is a filthy sewer filled with hatred and bile that threatens our shores!" – let's not pretend people make a point of watching a movie because "Oh look, Feore's chewing scenery again."

Off-camera talent fares no better, starting with a script by the writer of Killer Golf (2000). Now, I haven't seen Killer Golf, but if I was a betting man, I'd say no one else has either. Director Stuart Gillard actually had a minor hit in 1993 with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, but rather than criticize it or the rest of his limited filmography, I'm just going to thank him for 1982's Phoebe Cates-starring Paradise and move on.

How the Sequel Respects the Original

The sequel's existence and every single frame within it represent the exact opposite of respecting the original, so there's nothing to see in this section. I'm sorry for my lack of positivity in this matter.

How the Sequel S***s on the Original

WarGames is something special in that it's a popular '80s film that holds up spectacularly well on re-watches even 35 years later. Every beat works from the big "action" sequences at the wholly convincing NORAD control center to the small moments between Broderick and Sheedy. They were both 20 at the time, but perfectly convey the goofiness, wide-eyed innocence, and awkward flirtations of our teen years. As with the rest of the cast, we believe these characters, and that aids in everything from the humor to the near world-ending drama of the third act. It's a playful film, but its emotional beats and thrills are still wonderfully affecting.

WarGames: The Dead Code manages none of that.

Gone is the wit and authenticity of the first film's script, and in its place is one written by someone who not only has never played a video game, but also was never actually a teenager. World of Warcraft is name-dropped a few times for street cred, but when it comes to RIPLEY, the game is so laughably basic as to be insulting to pixels and wannabe terrorists alike. Players wager real money, pick a level – they can go straight to "The Dead Code" – and then fly a poorly rendered drone. There's nothing to it that a caffeine-fueled eight year old couldn't crush in mere minutes. It's supposedly targeting possible players who exhibit a familiarity with military weapons and tactics, but as an example of this flawless methodology, it's meant to be telling when Will chooses sarin gas to kill masses of civilians because who but terrorists could possibly know how deadly sarin is?

Our two teens are played by actors in their mid to upper twenties who lack the slightest spark of personality or chemistry. It's bad enough that they're bland, but the best friend character crosses over into incessantly annoying territory. You'll want him to die immediately. The impressive production design behind the original's NORAD location is replaced by some guy's dimly lit den, and the dozens upon dozens of military personnel? Who needs them when we can have a couple yokels monitoring four laptop screens. The direction is clearly limited by budget, leaving us with a flat and unimaginative film. A CG explosion and fire underwhelms, an overuse of blue tinting dulls the eyes, and a single uneventful use of split screen reveals aspirations of De Palma before going away a second later, never to return.

There's also an odd obsession with Matt Damon (and yes I know the word "odd" is probably redundant). First Will's friend refers to Damon's "Ripley movie," and then when Will starts the game RIPLEY's female voice says "Good hunting Will." Ugh.

The film is uneventful and uninspired across the board, but it becomes truly offensive when it brings Falken back from the dead. Again. As written and performed in the first film, Falken is a man who had seen the error of his ways regarding military technology and who ends the movie having discovered a newfound joy for life and the living. The Dead Code suggests that same character not only went back to designing military hardware before once again learning that's bad news, but that he also faked his death again. Worse, a man who so cherished his lost wife and child goes on to marry and have more kids, only to then abandon them by pretending to die?!

Spoiler, he's killed in a big-ish explosion in this film, but honestly who the hell knows or cares at this point.

The dull and dry climax sees the film re-hashing the original as Will gets Joshua to battle RIPLEY – they're sharing a residence by this point – with increased web traffic, DoS attacks, and a bunch of games in the hopes of realizing that its impending biochemical missile strike on Washington DC is a bad idea. The sequence rushes through it all, though, with no sense of suspense, pacing, or tension. They save the day, I guess, but the original's feeling of immense accomplishment and celebration is replaced here with the simple relief that it's over.

Well, almost over. Joshua jokes about nuking humanity saying "The human race is finished." Pause for effect. "That was humor. Ha. Ha. Ha." And then an exchange occurs that I'm still puzzling over as Annie refers back to a conversation about Will being an optimist or a pessimist. "You never told me about the glass," she says. "Is it half empty or half full?" "Neither," he replies. "It's just the wrong size."

It's entirely possible that the movie is brilliant and I just don't get it.

Conclusion

WarGames: The Dead Code is the kind of nonsensical, no-talent cash grab that seems pointless. There's no returning cast members and barely a returning character, and that combined with the quarter century delay leaves an audience of zero with even fewer positive expectations. Who is this movie for? It features none of the originals' charm, suspense, or humanity and instead fills the screen with top to bottom bulls*** and mediocrity. Skip it, re-watch the original, and then send me a virtual high-five when the world is saved, Broderick tousles Coleman's hair, and the end credits roll.