In the best date movie ever made about nuclear holocaust, WarGames (1983), a pair of whiz kids (Matt Broderick and Ally Sheedy) race to avert disaster after an ill-advised bit of computer hackery almost triggers World War III. The most interesting thing about WarGames, aside from its fittingness as a vehicle for Broderick’s trademark nerdy acting style, is its cold-war-era penchant for portraying armed conflict as an abstraction reducible to blips on a screen.
There is nary a flesh-and-blood Russian in WarGames. Instead, the real adversary is Armageddon itself, and its co-conspirators are computer algorithms, logical conundrums, and the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, all of which collude to dupe into self-obliteration a humanity otherwise reluctant to so deliberately seal its own fate. Common enough in earlier films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove (both 1964), this theme is conspicuous in WarGames since the latter came out in a decade known for unsubtle action movies with ferociously Soviet, Rutger Hauerian villains.
Surprisingly little revision is needed for WarGames: The Dead Code, a modest sequel set a quarter century later in the context of the foundering American “war on terror”. Although the USSR is long gone, all the basic elements of the original movie are still here. The hero, Will (Matt Lanter), is still a talented computer hacker, although he has quite a lot more CPU horsepower to work with than in David Lightman’s Apple II days.
Here as in 1983, the potentially Earth-annihilating blunder is still an innocent attempt to impress a girl. In the original, David, showing off his skills for Jennifer, breaches a DoD wargaming mainframe; in Dead Code, hacker Will engineers a hinky online bet to get airfare so he can follow love interest Annie (Maxim Roy) to a chess tournament.
The Dead Code program, in which Will wagers five grand that he can kill 100,000 civilians in a simulated biological attack, turns out to be software a government organization has secretly designed to bait would-be militants. The premise is decidedly odd: the Dead Code program takes online wagers on games involving terrorism. Disproportionately talented players are flagged as likely terrorists playing the game to fund actual attacks. These players are then put under surveillance and intercepted before the attacks can be mounted, and their winnings are confiscated.
There’s a headache-inducing circularity to all this. Would bona fide militants really needlessly call attention to themselves by playing terrorist videogames online? Are guerrilla insurgencies typically funded through Internet gambling? Wouldn’t the government have any qualms about giving terrorists taxpayer money? And would the terrorists even bother to plan their attacks if the option of playing Dead Code in order to fund them weren’t available?
Befuddling though the premise is, it has something of a real-life antecedent. Six years ago, DARPA head John Poindexter created a media firestorm with FutureMAP, a scheme to predict terrorist plots by creating a futures trade market in Middle East political events.
And that’s a big part of where Dead Code is interesting in spite of itself. The irony of the original is that the principal threats to David and Jennifer are not the commies but over-vigilant agents of their own government. Where Dead Code retains this central irony, the fulcrum of WarGames—the essentialist East-vs.-West conflict that provides at least an alibi for the US government’s zealotry—is lost in the feckless “war on terror”, a military campaign waged against a tactic.
The 1980s offered at least a convenient binary, however facile, to make the sense of siege and imminent peril tangible on some level. The war on terror, on the other hand, seems conducted entirely in conceptual freespace. Hence John Poindexter’s mad gambit at making sense of the “enemy” in 2001 and ’02. The quasi-mystical rationale behind FutureMAP was that the collective caprices of unregulated financial markets would reveal truths invisible to individuals, no matter how observant or well informed.
In Dead Code, the oracular algorithm behind the Internet gambling site is a computer called “R.I.P.L.E.Y.”, which correlates data on the users who visit the site with potentially suspicious financial transactions. Because Will is playing Dead Code using the bank account of a friend linked to a Pakistani with suspicious ties (but who, it turns out, is guilty of only the pettiest wrongdoing), R.I.P.L.E.Y. immediately tags Will as a looming threat.
The manhunt is on, and he and Annie spend the rest of the movie in the usual action-packed, desperate flight from shadowy government agents. In a subsequent effort to hack R.I.P.L.E.Y. and find out who is pursuing them, Will manages to trigger a chain of events that threatens to coax R.I.P.L.E.Y. into launching a nuclear attack in response to a nonexistent terrorist conspiracy; the duo then must seek out Stephen Falken (John Wood), the elder mastermind from the ’83 film, if they are to find a way to outfox R.I.P.L.E.Y. and save the planet. (Until Falken eventually turns up there’s really nothing to indicate Dead Code as a proper sequel to the original movie except for a general resemblance in plotting and character.)
Dead Code is a direct-to-DVD release and suffers from many of that format’s endemic shortcomings: diminished production values, a substandard musical score, inconsistent writing and performances, and the general overall look of a product that doesn’t quite amount to a feature film. Where Dead Code almost inadvertently redeems itself is in its uncanny resemblance to the vague conflict it takes as its inspiration.
When R.I.P.L.E.Y. finally snaps and starts dragging more and more innocent people into its dragnet based on ever more tenuous, six-degrees-of-separation-style connections among bank transactions, casual acquaintances of suspects, and the like, one suspects shoddy script-writing is the true culprit. But it also calls to mind the stories of those tragic detainees at Guantanamo, turned in speciously by family enemies or for reward money or gathered up in indiscriminate sweeps, and the rampant wiretapping conducted by the NSA, often on individuals with only the most coincidental or circumstantial connection to supposed “terrorists”.
If all of this seems ill thought out — to be exceedingly charitable — on the part of America’s policymakers, maybe it makes sense it would be ill thought out on the part of the creative talent behind Dead Code. If this doesn’t exactly make Dead Code smarter or better, it does at least give the movie a bit of that meandering, free-associative sense of dread familiar to so many of us from watching the real-life fiasco of the last few years.