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March 18, 2016

VGFlicks: War Games: The Dead Code (Part 1)

A little bit of history about video game movies. It’s hard to believe for the millenials, but there was a time where video games were not a widespread fact of media. Anyone who lived in the 80s and early 90s know what I’m talking about. This was the golden age of arcades, the machines were large and sucked out your cash as long as you were ready to shill out another quarter or a buck to try and beat your own high score. Oh yeah, that was also a time where scores mattered. Also, home computers were a rare thing, and those things were big too. Obviously, this was not a time where there was a single video game popular enough to make a film. And yet, 1983 saw the release of the first movie with video games – or, well, computer games, but you get the picture – as the central point of the story: War Games. The Famicom wasn’t even out in stores! War Games came out in May, the Famicom in July!

War Games was the story of a brilliant teenager (played by Matthew Broderick – still accumulating roles despite our hopes that he had stopped in the early 2000s) using multiple hacking techniques existing at the time, until he finds his way to a simulation game… or so he thinks, as said simulation game reveals itself to be an actual military program designed to launch very real nuclear weapons, and the teenager’s mindless toying with the program takes the entire world closer by the minute to World War Three. That’s kind of a big deal.

I haven’t had the honor to see the original War Games movie yet, but until I do, here’s a fun fact for you: In 2008, thus 25 years later, they made a sequel to this. The new film, called War Games: Virtual Boogaloo-er, I mean, War Games: The Dead Code – can be seen as a sequel nobody really asked for. But we got it, and it deals with computer games, so I had to check it out. They managed not to make it a box-office bomb… by not releasing it in theaters, doing a direct-to-DVD release instead. It was also filmed in Montreal, so there’s that. Hey, who knows, this could be good snark material. Let’s plunge into War Games: The Dead Code, and see if it was worth reviving this film with a sequel.

No, you are not watching an animated war film by the
makers of FoodFight. This is the actual quality of the
CGI effects in this film.
The movie starts as a terrorist cell in Afghanistan receives the visit of a bunch of women, no doubt sent there to rise the morale of the troops. And other things too, probably. The terrorists start exhibiting common gun-ho behavior, shooting in the air, and that’s when a drone passing over them drops a warhead on them, killing everyone. Oh, by the way, I get that this was a direct-to-DVD film, but they could have tried to do better with their special effects. This scene contains a whole lot of CGI, and damn can you tell. This is, like, Toy Story-level CGI. Those things look like toys.

Said warhead was launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (which I’ll refer to as Homeland Security from now on), specifically by a machine called RIPLEY, who is in charge of detecting terrorist threats to America. So wait, a computer decided to do that? Gee, let’s hope it never goes crazy. (I’ll be ready to take a shot when it does, because it WILL, that I’m sure of. Not even 5 minutes in and I can read through this film’s twists already. Not a good sign.)

This is Will. Not pictured: Dennis. You'll thank me later.
We cut to Philadelphia, where teenage computer whiz Will Farmer (played by Matt Lanter) is enjoying some time with his friend Dennis, who’s playing a computer game. Please tell me Dennis’ role is minor in this, because damn does he sound like an annoying guy. And that computer game’s graphics? They look older than 2008, that’s for sure. As for Will, the actual protagonist (thank God), he’s excellent at hacking, though that got him in trouble previously and thus he’s trying to avoid doing any more of it for now. He’s also quite the gadgeteer. As the two leave for school, Will is accosted by his neighbor, Sayid Massude, who can no longer access his online bank accounts. Will frequently helps Mr. Massude and thus promises to look into it as soon as possible.

Colm Feore! I am so fanboying right now!
We’re back in D.C. now, where the head of Homeland Security T. Kenneth Hassert, played by, *gasp!*, Colm Feore!, has just arrived. Mr. Feore, you were amazing in Bon Cop Bad Cop! I can’t wait for the sequel! You were great in Thor too! I want an autograph! True, you were in Pearl Harbor, but hey, everyone makes mistakes. Anyway, Hassert reveals that the terrorist cell blown up by cheap CGI in the intro had earned three millions dollars through playing a game hidden in the darker corners of the Internet, called (obviously) RIPLEY. In that game, players bet an amount of money as well as a number of casualties, and must succeed in killing off their target number of victims in the allotted time. Entering said game also installs spyware in the computer of the person playing. Players who go as far as Level 5 are immediately labelled a threat to homeland security, as getting there requires great knowledge of weapon systems, terror tactics and biohazards.

Ah yes, because everyone knows that gamers stop playing a game when they lose at it, and don’t ever go back to it in an attempt to win. Though, granted, the players need to bet big sums of money to play, so I guess if you can no longer bet money, you can't play. Honestly, this whole thing just smells like trouble brewing. Hint hint: If you know nothing about gaming or gamers, don’t put video games in your plans.

Back to Will and Dennis participating to a chess club. Dennis tells Will about that RIPLEY game he found online, and asks to help him get the money to play. Meanwhile, the teacher in charge of the club is explaining the legendary chess game between Garry Kasparov and the computer Big Blue, explaining that the computer lost due to the human using an unexpected, unconventional strategy. After Will shows some interest, the teacher invites him to join the chess competition, which will take place in Montreal, Canada. Oh hey, gotta give it to this film, it’ll feature the actual Montreal, they won’t pretend it’s Paris like Hollywood did in Smurfs 2. This is also where Will meets Annie D’Mateo (played by Amanda Walsh), whom he immediately takes a liking to. She also suggests that he joins the competition, as long as he can pay the 550$ required for the trip. That evening, Will tries to hack into some of Annie’s accounts using password guesswork (Our hero, everyone! Hacks the accounts of the girl he kinda likes! What a great role model for the kids!). However, she manages to outsmart him with code protection and a menacing video where she actually guesses that it might be him trying to get into her accounts. Smart girl. She definitely deserves to be with someone better than him. And yet she tells him again to come with her to Montreal! Sigh.

That’s when we learn that Will’s mother works at Wyren Chemical, an enterprise that makes air fresheners and other chemical products. For some reason, she also seems always sickly, and germophobic on top of that. Oh joy. As a result, she has some work-related samples of chemicals at home, the sort of thing normal households don’t have, and she also knows a lot about those products.

This animated woman's proportions are so wrong, she'd
give Rob Liefeld an erection.
Checking his neighbor Massude’s computer, Will and Dennis find out that it’s infected with a Trojan Horse and a bunch of other viruses. Will checks Massude’s bank account (which Will knows the password for, since he helped set it up – again: our hero, everyone!), where he sees a lot of money being deposited every few seconds and then pulled out. Apparently Massude has a brother in Syria who’s a crook and may be using his account to store this illegal money. Dennis, always the terrible friend that he is, suggests they use that illegal money to play RIPLEY, and repay it when they win. Will selects in the drop-down menu the game called The Dead Code and bets 500$, after which he selects his personal goal for the game: Killing 100,000 in-game citizens in 10 minutes. When Will is distracted from the computer, Dennis raises the bet to 5000$. Dammit Dennis!

I always felt there weren't enough games about brutally
killing all the citizens in a city with biochemical
weapons. But The Dead Code just seems sucky at it.
This being Homeland Security, they quickly spot this new player to the game, and RIPLEY already starts looking for connections between Will and others. As Will progresses to Level 2, Homeland Security finds out that the 5 grand comes right out of a crime ring in Damascus and has travelled across multiple American banks. Level 3 of the game is where it starts fighting back. Oh, by the way, can I say that those graphics are pretty terrible? I know we’re talking about 2008, so I’m not to expect the high definition we have now, especially not for a game played online. But damn, this is a cheap-looking game. Anubis II looked better, I think- No, wait, no. I’m not ready to say things like that yet. I retract this, Anubis II is still the worst thing ever.

The agents of the Department of Homeland Security are
checking Will play...
Meanwhile, Dennis is overjoyed and keeps annoying Will and the audience with stupid songs and cheers. Dammit Dennis! Shut the fuck up! They reach Level 4, where they have to kill the remaining 40,000 citizens with limited resources and a choice between two biochemical weapons. Will hurries to ask his mother which chemical is the more dangerous between the two and goes back to the computer, selects the option, and wins. The game gets to Level 5 and RIPLEY shuts it off, along with the power in their neighborhood of Philadelphia. Because obviously a computer like this should be allowed to do that. Oh, and of course obviously anyone getting to Level 5 of this cheap-ass game is a menace to America, apparently. So, by your logic, if I play Super Mario Bros. I’ll become addicted to mushrooms? And Pokémon will turn me into a cockfighting magnate? Well, my future looks bright. Gee, what will it be if I start playing GTA?

By the way, RIPLEY also installs spyware in Will’s computer before bringing the power back on the next morning. The spyware causes Will’s computer to always feature the same animated woman and the message “Play with me, baby” ad nauseam. Because the developers didn’t bother recording more lines. He also checks to see Massude’s bank account sealed by the U.S. Government. Will turns off his computer, but the woman and the message come back on the screen; he unplugs his computer… the message appears ON HIS PHONE. Damn…

Meet Annie. She will thankfully replace Dennis as secondary
protagonist for the rest of the film. Yay for that.
On the next day, Sayid Massude leaves an envelope of money to Will, to thank him for looking into the problem. And that’s enough money to let Will go to the chess competition! Yay! ...That’s when Massuda gets taken away by the police. Will leaves for the airport, but definitely feels himself watched by the passenger of some odd black car… At the airport, Dennis is already in the plane with Annie, and since Will takes long to get there Dennis agrees to go look for him. He, too, gets taken away by agents of Homeland Security just as Will makes his way through and onto the plane, which leaves for Montreal without Dennis. You know what, I’m actually relieved that Dennis is gonna be relegated to secondary character. Shame, though, that this is killing my running gag for this review faster than expected…

Now pictured: Dennis (in the middle), about to be
interrogated by cops. I know the situation is dire,
but this made my day.
Questioned by the agents, Dennis refuses to explain much outside of the facts he knows: That Will played that game just to get money to go on that trip. But the agents explain what is, without a doubt, the most unbelievable series of coincidences ever put to film: The money used to play the game came from an account hacked by a terrorist cell in Syria, and Will's “performance” in the game proved that he had enough knowledge to be a threat; add to this that Will’s mother keeps at home enough samples of chemicals to cause a Philadelphia-shattering kaboom, meaning that Will is sought for being a potential bioterrorist threat against America. Hey, um, mister writer? Randall Badat? Yes, I would like to know, did you pull something in your arm when you went to reach that far for all these coincidences? I’d like to know, it would be a shame if your arm dislocated as a result of trying too hard in the writing of this computer-thriller. Anyway, Dennis’ rights are denied until this imbroglio is solved.

No, Dennis, no! You're playing into their plan!
On the plane, Will calls his mom and learns that the agents also went in Massude’s house and took everything of importance. When that call ends, Will’s mother sees agents in suits at her door and goes to answer… to be taken away by them, and used as another tool to convince Dennis to tell more to the agents, even though everything he said already was all there really was to say. Heading out for coffee, the agents go out, leaving a coat behind, which Dennis checks to find a cell phone, which… he uses to send a text to Will. Which turns out to have been the agents’ plan all along, since now they can locate Will’s phone.

Dammit Dennis. Such stupidity is big enough to find its way into a record book. Yeah, you better be sorry.  You know what? I’m glad we don’t see you much after this scene. The film will only be better off for it. Let’s see what Will and Annie are up to.

Either the threat levels have been raised in the
airport, or a convention for policemen imitators
just opened in Montreal.
They reach the airport in Montreal, and there sure seems to be a lot of security in here. Good luck in Montreal, Will. I hope you have some basic notions… I mean, I heard Montreal had, *gasp!*, French Canadians! How bothersome for you English speakers! How will you deal with human beings who, O God above, dare not to speak your language?? I’ve heard they don’t quite follow the “Canadians are nice” stereotype, either, and that they’re quick to curse using the famed church words. I hope you at least know a few basics. Please bother to learn a bit of French when you come to Quebec. It’s not that hard. “Merci beaucoup”, “où sont les toilettes”, “c’est combien?”, “va chez le diable”… See? Not hard at all! Anyway, Will manages to escape the airport, and later contacts Annie so that she retrieves him. She leaves but bumps into a strange man in a coat, who quickly leaves.

They meet outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a real place in Montreal, where Will explains his plan to crack the government network to find out what happened to his mother, now suspected of bioterrorism. In an Internet café, Annie distracts a man who Will recognized as a notable credit card thief, and Will uses the guy’s set-up to hack into RIPLEY. There, Will finds what happened to his mother. Did I mention Homeland Security had no qualms in harming this woman (possibly with chemicals) badly enough to put her in the hospital?

Even if they didn't do anything to her, an image like this
sure makes it hard for Homeland Security to look good.

Look, if there is one good thing in this movie, it’s that neither side is portrayed as a straight-up villain. Will gets tangled up into this whole thing due to bad choices (thank you, Dennis) and a (very, very silly) string of coincidences, and Homeland Security… well, in looking for potential threats, they’re just doing their job. Sure, you can disagree all you want, you could say they have no business spying on the American population this closely, nor should they use such a stupid idea as an online computer game to detect instances of domestic terrorism. Nor should they put all of their faith in a single AI, no matter how advanced and/or powerful it is as machines can, too, make mistakes, overreact to data or make wrong decisions. And the people at Homeland Security in this film are supposed to be the human part of the equation, but still rely far too much on RIPLEY. Which, by the way, has carte blanche to hack into the surveillance systems of literally ANYWHERE in the United States, and even does it in Montreal, which is in Canada, out of their jurisdiction. But despite all these blatant issues, a case can be made that they’re just doing their job. There’s a lot of wrong in the way they do it, but they’re not technically “villains”… well, until they felt it was called for to send a middle-aged woman into the hospital, and we’re never told what they did to her. That’s just nasty.

When you make your supercomputer look this
ominous, you know you're looking for trouble.
In fact, RIPLEY has a lot of faults. It doesn’t have context, so when it starts gathering information about those playing the Dead Code game, it takes all potential menaces with utmost serious, analyzing any connections one may have, then analyzing those connections’ connections. RIPLEY listens in on what the people at Homeland Security are saying about it, and is more than willing to label them as threats, too, if they choose to oppose it. Not to mention its power to control cameras and other electronic systems from a distance can make it quite dangerous. It even chooses to hide information from its controllers! Ironic that something in the role of preventing threats becomes the threat. But then again, I’m not surprised. The trend in American films when it comes to AI is to make them turn on their owners quickly.

After discovering the picture of his mother, Will and Annie get chased again by Homeland Security, and escape into the Jacques-Cartier subway station, into the tunnels. There, Will realizes that the agents are using Annie’s phone to locate them, so he throws it onto the passing subway. This prevents them from being located and also fools RIPLEY, leading its creators to believe it might not be all that trustworthy (since it hid information from them)… and even when it cannot hear them, it can read their lips, thus it knows what they’re saying about it. Well, that’ll teach you to make a HAL 9000 rip-off! As if that was not enough, the higher-ups at Homeland Security are also starting to doubt RIPLEY due to its overreaction as the chemicals in the Farmer home were mostly products involved in the creation of mouthwash and other household supplies.

Gee, maybe it wasn't a good idea to run away in the
subway tunnels!

Will and Annie are still hidden in tunnels of the subway when Annie explains that she asked the guy at the Internet café about RIPLEY. The man knew enough to do some vital exposition: RIPLEY replaced a system called WOPR; this was the computer in the original War Games. The creator of that system, Stephen Falken, helped in the creation of RIPLEY, but killed himself shortly afterwards.

After the two come out, they are accosted by that old man Annie bumped into at the airport. He tells them to join him at his truck, and only says he’s “a gentleman who nearly started World War 3”. They go there, and Annie recognizes the man as Stephen Falken (played by Gary Reineke). The old man explains that he faked his own death – raise your hand if you saw it coming; hey, you there, at the back! You didn’t raise your hand. You must not have heard what I said. I said, “Raise your hand if you saw it coming that the old guy was Stephen Falken”- Oh, you’re raising it, good! We’re all on the same page. Excellent, this plot twist was so bloody obvious that everyone figured it out. Of course, it kinda helps that it was also in the original War Games, with the same character no less. Also helps that the revelation happened not even 10 minutes after that plot point was exposited.

Falken says that he found them by sticking a tracker on Annie’s scarf when he bumped into her at the airport, and that he has been trying to stop RIPLEY for a while now; his faked suicide let him go unnoticed, allowing him to keep an eye on Homeland Security’s activities. And now, Will and Annie have to leave with Falken, since the old man knows someone who can help them defeat RIPLEY… (I’d ask to raise your hand if you think it’s WOPR, but if I did that for every obvious twist in this film you’d just spend the rest of the review raising and lowering your hand.)

You know what, this has been going on for long enough. How about we wrap this up Monday, hm? See you then! In the meantime, I’ll watch some good films. As in, “films better than this one”.