MGM has partnered with interactive video company Eko to revive its 1983 cult classic WarGames, reimagined with contemporary hackers. A new trailer for the interactive series, out in 2018, has just dropped, and it looks to be taking some liberties with its campy source material.
The original WarGames followed high schoolers David and Jennifer, played by '80s teen movie mainstays Mathew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. David sets his sights on hacking, letting his grades slip in a Ferris Bueller-ian bid to raise hell with his smarts instead of toeing the line. That troublemaking impulse catches up with him when he and Jennifer accidentally hack into a NORAD missile control centre and activate an AI that starts playing a war simulation "game" that quickly turns real.
The film was obviously steeped in Cold War paranoia and emerging fears of relinquishing control to machines in an age of mutually assured destruction. It also offered a hopeful message of reconciliation, making light of how absurd the Cold War was. "A strange game," says Joshua, the AI. "The only winning move is not to play."
Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy go from hacking their biology grades to pushing America to the brink of nuclear war in 1983's WarGames. Image: MGM.
Barlow's new series takes a different track, offering a more intimate glimpse into the lives of a group of international hackers with potentially murkier motives.
The new trailer introduces us to the series with references to Yahoo's 2013 email hack, the 2014 Sony hack, the 2016 e-robbery of a bank in Bangladesh, and most recently the Equifax security breach — all very real instances of major organisations suddenly finding themselves vulnerable in the old west lawlessness of the World Wide Web. The images frantically glitch in and out of focus, offering us glimpses of young faces, looking into their computer screens, directly at us.
While we can glean only very little from the trailer, the series appears like it will hae darker and edgier take on hackers and geopolitics than the original WarGames, which took a more whimsical route. Still, the series borrows much of the spirit of its predecessor, says director Sam Barlow, who recently spoke with io9 over the phone.
Barlow is best known for directing another interactive project, the award-winning Her Story. He built on that experience for the longer, serialized WarGames and had plenty to say about interactive filmmaking, hacker culture, and his take on the '80s cult classic.
Gizmodo: The first trailer for WarGames is very enigmatic. Can you tell me a bit about the series and what made you sign on?
Sam Barlow: After having done Her Story, the excitement of working on your own original property, I had this instant reaction — I'm not sure I want to do that. I went back and re-watched the movie, and suddenly started getting very excited. This is kind of the movie that invented the popular conception of hacking.
You'll have a bunch of windows on your screen. We're used to video chatting with our friends, having a big image, and smaller images of other people, things dropping in and out. So we decided to build the show around this concept. As the story's progressing, all these different characters are talking to each other over the internet, and all of their windows are up on the screen. There'll be additional video windows as well, so if they're hacking into CCTV cameras, you'll see that. If they're watching a live TV broadcast, you'll see that.
If you're particularly interested in a certain character, you're spending more time focused on them, we can have that steer the story. As you watch more and more, we continue to take notes and we use that to steer the character of Kelly — Kelly is our main character.
What can you tell us about Kelly?
Barlow: As a hacker, she fits on a continuum where on one extreme you have the trickster spirit hackers who live for the lulz, who are basically just turning the world upside-down and causing chaos as a way of expressing themselves. And at the very other extreme, you have the people who are saying, "Look, we now have a voice, and we can shine a spotlight on things. We don't necessarily need to break the law, or break it so violently. We want to express a coherent political viewpoint, and have a much more serious approach to this."
Split screens in WarGames. Image: Eko.
The original film takes place in the early days of the internet. How did you go about creating your contemporary hackers?
Barlow: The thing that jumped out from watching the original WarGames was that Matthew Broderick's character in that movie is not this guy in a hoodie hiding away. He's actually really likable. He's the popular kid in the class. He's the joker in the class. And it was really interesting for me to see the original hacker protagonist as the loveable, jokey guy next door. As much as I love Dragon Tattoo and Mr. Robot, that got me suddenly excited. The idea of trying to create a new hacker protagonist that was as fun and as likable as Matthew Broderick, that felt like it would be doing something interesting and different.
And Looking at groups like Anonymous, coming out of the 4Chan culture and the darker parts of the internet, the black humour, and developing a political agenda, developing a maturity and realising that they could achieve political ends, like the contributions of Anonymous to the Arab Spring, I was fascinated by that.
Anonymous is a very polarising organisation, as is WikiLeaks. Is it hard to write hackers when you have all of that baggage to work with?
Barlow: One of the things I wanted to address was that, in a lot of popular culture, Anonymous and that hacker activist is seen as a kind of Robin Hood figure. This mischievous doer of good. I certainly knew from my experience in the games industry that the reality was not quite as nice. There are forces within the hacker world and those parts of the internet that are very reactionary and have done awful things. Same with WikiLeaks. There was that point in history where WikiLeaks were the shining force for freedom of speech and were cutting through the bullshit of the democratic process and the military industrial complex, and the current perception of WikiLeaks is very different now. It's far more nuanced, and the balance has swung the other way.
I was really interested in exploring that, but I wanted to explore it not through a character who was super compromised. Not something quite as nihilistic as Fight Club or the murkiness of Mr. Robot, because the thing that really stuck to me was the naivety of Broderick and Sheedy's characters in WarGames. Their optimism and clarity of thought. That was something that was actually really endearing to me. So with Kelly, I wanted to have a character that is inherently good.
The nostalgia industry is huge right now. To what extent did you feel bound to the original WarGames and its fans' expectations?
Barlow: It feels inherently dishonest to try to do a sequel or prequel to someone else's story. It sometimes feels pointless. If we're looking at hackers that exist in the present day, they are part of online culture. They are constantly self-referential about movies and catch-lines. They are going to have seen the original WarGames movie and love that movie. Without spoiling anything too much, there is a direct callback to the original.
What I was excited about was looking at the themes and what that movie said, and staying very truthful to that.