High school teen Matthew Broderick hacks into the school’s computer system to change grades to show off to pretty classmate Ally Sheedy. On a high and a bit cocky, he then takes on a riskier task: Hacking into the new whizz bang super computer system at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command), which to anyone born after the 1980s is basically a warning and protection system for North America. Yeah, this kid’s cocky but he sure ain’t a thinker with any sense of foresight whatsoever. This one action sets off a whole catastrophic chain reaction as the computer system starts to play its war games simulations ‘for realsies’…and it may not be able to be stopped. Oops. Dabney Coleman is the man behind the implementation of new system which is dubbed ‘Joshua’, with John Wood as its reclusive inventor. Barry Corbin plays the stern, no-nonsense General. Eddie Deezen and Maury Chaykin play geeks, whilst Art LaFleur, John Spencer, and Michael Madsen (in his screen debut) are seen early as men tasked with the awful job of activating a nuclear missile launch.
Ferris Bueller, a member of “The Breakfast Club”, uber-geek Eddie Deezen (who still largely looks the same in 2020, by the way), Dabney Coleman, and antiquated computer technology. What could be more 80s than this 1983 Atari-era hacker/WWIII panic film? Directed by John Badham (“Saturday Night Fever”, “Stakeout”) and scripted by Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes (who both co-write the underrated 90s old geezer computer caper flick “Sneakers”), it’s both very much of its time in technological aspects and ahead of its time in thematic aspects. Hackers are still a thing, we have Julian Assange, and then there’s the whole Edward Snowden deal. So it’s clearly still very, very relevant, even if computers themselves have undergone a few changes of the mostly cosmetic variety. It’s nowhere near one of the best movies of the 1980s, but in its own way I reckon it’s every bit as importantly iconic of the era as say “Wall Street” and “Top Gun”, “Tootsie”, “9 to 5”, “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Platoon” and “The Breakfast Club”, even if some of those films are better. It’s far from perfect, obviously. The corny ‘audience explainer’ dialogue delivered by Ally Sheedy and an overly insistent music score by Arthur B. Rubinstein (“Stakeout”, “Nick of Time”) are problems. I also think John Wood is a rather boring choice for a plum role that would’ve been better served by a Donald Pleasance, Nicol Williamson, or Denholm Elliott. Otherwise, this one’s very entertaining, even if the authoritarian characters are slightly on the Gomer Pyle side of dumbski. That’s pretty much in-keeping with most depictions of authority figures in teen movies though, isn’t it? Didn’t we all think grown-ups were a bit dumb when we were youngsters?
It starts well, with a memorably tense scene featuring a young-ish John Spencer and an almost unrecognisably young Michael Madsen that makes you absolutely not envy anyone in such a position as the one they are tasked with. I’ll admit the use of ‘Tic Tac Toe’ is a bit infantile and simplistic (I get the point, but it’s a bit corny), otherwise this is the film that “Red Dawn” could’ve and should’ve been. Instead it went all-in on the Reagan-era bullshit and largely concerned itself with a bunch of good-looking young ‘stars’ instead of a decent script. This one’s only got two good-looking young stars. Matthew Broderick peaked early as an actor/star, and anything made after “Biloxi Blues” that’s not named “The Cable Guy” or “Election” pales in comparison to his early iconic work in the aforementioned military comedy/drama, and especially the utterly iconic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I wouldn’t be shocked if his role here as a likeable young hacker is what landed him the gig as everyone’s favourite smart-arse truant. He’s perfect here. You actually feel for this guy. He’s just a smart-arse who got in over his head with adult business, potentially deadly adult business. Globally deadly. He just wanted to goof around and maybe show off a little. ‘Brat Pack’ member Ally Sheedy meanwhile, has never been more likeable and charming on screen as she is here. Barry Corbin and Dabney Coleman are perfect casting as the stern authority figures, though William Bogert (who died in 2020) and Susan Davis are utterly nondescript as Broderick’s barely attentive parents.
It’s no world-beater, but this is more tense and mature-minded than a lot of teen-oriented films of the 80s, and unlike most it’s not remotely interested in sex. A solid teen thriller that although technologically outdated, has themes that are still very relevant today. Broderick has one of his finest hours, and Sheedy has never been more appealing. I could argue that it’s about 10 minutes too long, but that’s a minor carp.