He Blinded Me With Science

- March 12, 2012

"Science on Screen events, mounted by the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque in its premiere collaboration with the world-renowned Santa Fe Institute think tank..."

"Oh God, no!" cried Simon DeDeo, burying his face in his hands, when I inquired, "Did you know MGM is remaking 'War Games'?"

Perhaps understandably, mine was the last audience question he fielded during the Q&A following his March 8 presentation of the 1983 Matthew Broderick/Ally Sheedy thriller.

For this first of four "Science on Screen" events, mounted by the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque in its premiere collaboration with the world-renowned Santa Fe Institute think tank, he was lucky enough to score a rare 35mm print from the original run.

Critiquing the movie as "extremely silly...a piece of Cold War nostalgia," while also citing its historical significance as "a film about the genesis of hacking," DeDeo's variant spin, tailored for his brainy and appreciative audience, came from his background as a Harvard/Cambridge/ Princeton physicist/mathematician/poet. The evening's emcee described him as moving from "the clean problems of theory into the messy problems of biology and social dynamics."

Sounds heavy. Actually, it was all pretty funny. People laughed a lot.

Directed by John Badham ("Saturday Night Fever," "Short Circuit") and written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes with an uncredited Walon Green ("The Wild Bunch"), "WarGames" is "Fail-Safe" for the 80s, in which a teenage computer whiz pokes his modem where it shouldn't go--in essence, he hacks U.S. defense cyber-files--accidentally provoking a NORAD battle strategy program into thinking it's time to blow up Earth. "Is this a game or is it real?" is the movie's mantra.

The nostalgia flew across the room like 3-D. A telephone booth! Pop tops! Rotary dials! Floppy discs the size of a Bee Gees LP! And, geez, the characters: A corpulent hawk general with an ever-present chaw of Red Man (!); 21-year-old adults playing high schoolers; clueless "Ferris Bueller"-like parental units; and a reclusive ├╝ber-genius who wants the world to go nuke itself because his kid croaked.

Underlying the Reagan-era rhetoric, however, is a narrative armature documenting a time now three decades past when, DeDeo said, hacking computers had "an Alice in Wonderland element. There's a door in the world, but where does it go?"

"Each age gets the hacker it deserves," he continued, pointing to WikiLeaks as a current example. And despite the blindingly exponential acceleration in technology, DeDeo believes there will always be somebody looking for the back door. "A hacker is a constant feature of the computational world," he cautioned. "This is what happens when we give power to the machines."

For me, though, what one takes away from the night is not only DeDeo's earnest  unearthing of truth from Hollywood banality, but also the movie's single most important line.

Regarding the practice of war, Cheyenne Mountain's Cray, known as WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) finally learns the basic stratagem: "Strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Still true./p>

Three CCA/SFI screenings remain:

--March 29: Political scientist Nathan Collins hosts Ridley Scott's visionary science-fiction noir "Blade Runner" (1982)

--April 26: Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, a past president of SFI, takes an overview of how motion pictures have predicted the city of the future

--May 17: Nobel prize laureate and SFI co-founder Murray Gell-Mann, accompanied by screenwriter and former Santa Fe resident Danny Rubin, offers another look at the contemporary classic "Groundhog Day" (1993)

Each program starts at 7 p.m. Get there early, as DeDeo's spiel was packed. Get some popcorn, too. It's that kind of night out.