In 10 Words or Less
Would you like to play a new game?
Loves: The original WarGames, Hackers
Likes: Revisiting a classic
Dislikes: Unmotivated sequels, adults playing teens
Hates: Most direct-to-DVD movies
Hollywood has learned a valuable lesson in recent years: titles are as much a part of franchises as characters and star actors. So if you've got a popular movie, just slap a number or subtitle on it, round up a few unknown actors and make a low-budget movie similar to the original. Result: more sales and rentals than your average direct-to-DVD release.
Thus, we get WarGames: The Dead Code.
Unlike most films of this type though, The Dead Code doesn't feel like they grabbed the first semi-cinematic computer-based script off the pile and slapped the name on it. Instead, they took the original movie, updated the technology and politics and amped up the action. While not disastrously mutated, it doesn't come close to the original's quality, thanks in large part to a questionable script and actors who can't overcome the material. (It's worth noting that director Stuart Gillard, writer Randall Badat and actor Matt Lanter ("Heroes") are the trio at the head of The Cutting Edge 3, another unneeded direct-to-video sequel, so this is not foreign ground for them.)
Here, Will Farmer (Lanter) is a teenage MacGyver with expertise with computers, who hacks networks on the side for enjoyment. He finds himself in the crosshairs of a terror-hunting U.S. government when he (buckle in) borrows money from his elderly Syrian neighbor's suspiciously enhanced bank account to play RIPLEY, an online game with the goal of killing thousands of people in Philadelphia with biochemical attacks. If that's not enough of a coincidence-fest for you, his mom works for a chemical company, and likes to keep samples of her work at home. Oh, and just before the heat comes down on him, he suddenly joins the chess club at school in time for a trip to Montreal with hot smart girl Annie (Amanda Walsh, "Sons & Daughters.") If I hadn't seen real stories about people railroaded in the name of national safety, it would be simply ridiculous. Instead, it's just rather silly seeing RIPLEY track him via phones and security cameras.
With Matt and Ally Sheedy stand-in Annie on the run from RIPLEY, which was made to entice and trap terrorists (somehow), the film has a real Enemy of the State feel, only set in Canada, which was a bit of a problem for me. I'm sure the U.S. works with Canada, but would they really have unfettered access to all of Canada or at least Montreal's security systems? The cloak and dagger bits aren't bad, directed with some panache by Gillard, though the chase scenes were a bit weak. It's just hard to believe a couple of high school kids could outrun a car, which they manage to do pretty effectively. It's also equally as hard to believe that Walsh, who's just a few years shy of 30, is a high-school student, as she looks like a "young" Kim Cattrell. Her character requires you to suspend disbelief as well, as she apparently is a pretty decent computer whiz herself, despite no establishment of her skills, and she is saddled with some pretty bad dialogue.
Though the general story about the dangers of automatizing and reliance on computers remains the same, the core of the first WarGames received an update here, as global terrorism is the foe, instead of the Soviet menace, and the computer that goes too far is RIPLEY, whose reach, thanks to a much more wired world, is much broader than WOPR ever could have hoped for. There's certainly a sense of reverence for the original film, or at least a number of homages that will amuse fans, including the return of two key characters (though sadly not the original actors.) You'll know how much of a fan you are if, when the reveal of one character is obviously approaching, you start flipping through the original cast in your mind to guess who it will be. I admit, I was surprised.
With the assistance of government agents that range from clueless to evil, RIPLEY goes rogue, putting the city of Philadelphia at risk of annihilation (via what's essentially bad search algorithms.) Thus, Matt has to convince the government he's not a terrorist and save the day, with a bit of help from the inside. If you've ever seen Hackers, just take that film, and blend it with in the near-exact plot progression of the first WarGames and you could probably figure out what's going to happen. That doesn't mean it's not done pretty well...it's just very predictable.
We received a screener disc of this film, so we can't give you an idea about the packaging, but the DVD has a static anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, Spanish Stereo and French Dolby 2.0, while subtitles are available in English and Spanish, along with closed captioning.
We can't give a substantial review of the quality of the film's anamorphic widescreen transfer, as the screen disc we received from Fox has a visual watermark that negatively affects the look of the film, but the movie has a very deliberate color palette that comes across clearly on DVD. When we get a final production copy, we will update this portion of the review.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track used for the film is pretty strong, offering up clear dialogue and quality music, with the sides and rear speakers enhancing the source music and special effects, including some hefty explosions. There's not a lot of movement between the speakers, but it sounds good for what it is.
The big extra here is a feature-length audio commentary with Lanter and director Stuart Gillard. Some stories from the set and production details (provided mainly by Gillard) are the draw here, but there's not much of a chat between the two participants, and there's a good deal of dead air throughout the track. Perhaps pairing the writer with the director would have made for a more engaging listen.
Also included is a 15-minute featurette with interviews with the producer, director and writer and some of the cast, including Lanter and Walsh. The piece is somewhat EPK-ish, as they talk about the story and characters in a rather promotional way and don't reveal much you couldn't learn from watching the film, but it's well made and has a short section focusing on the visual effects in the film that's worth a look. I would avoid it until after watching the film, as some of the more important reveals are given away here.
The disc is rounded out with a manual still photo gallery and some trailers for other Fox films.
The Bottom Line
I didn't think I would be too into this film, especially since it was treading on pretty sacred ground, but I have to admit I was drawn in to the suspense and a rather good-looking film, considering the budget. There's certainly a lot of problems, especially with the script (and in turn the acting), but something about seeing old friends and some good genre movie action made me want to see how it would all turn out (which was just the way I thought it would.) The disc itself is an unknown quality visually, but the sound is good, while the extras are definitely lacking. Fans of the original film will want to give this movie a look, if only for the references to the classic, but keep your expectations low and you can have a decent time.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.