We, the lost analog-cum-celluloid denizens of the (digital) pages of B&S About Movies are here to partake of another one of our “theme weeks,” in this case, all of those “ancient future” computer movies of the ’80s and ’90s that made the Internet more amazing and more frightening than it actually is. For those were the golden days of Hollywood — before thumb drives and clouds — when Tinseltown could dupe us with mere oscilloscopes and strips of magnetic tape — especially when a cute girl is running said scopes and cutting said tape. Hello, hook. Nice to meet you, line and CRT monitor.
Only 22 at the time of making the film, writer/director Michael Farkas came into his technical knowledge courtesy of his father who worked in IT security; as result, Farkas, compared to us Asteroid and TRON addicts, was a “David Lightman” and knew a hell of a lot more than we did about what made our Apple IIs and Commodore 64s tick. So, while the techno-gobbledygook, knob-twirling, scope-bouncing waveforms, and ticking red-LEDs are dated now, he was cyberhuskin’ then, since the tech was relevant and accurate to the times — hook, line, and cybersnakeoil.
Films like Prime Risk are a byproduct of those pre-AOL days when most of the world lacked computer knowledge beyond their Atari gaming system and quarter-swallowing arcade games. Moi? At the arcade: Defender and Xevious was my jam; I was rockin’ out with Space Defender on my Apple II packing a whopping 64kb of RAM. Who cared how it worked? All we knew is that we could punch in the number “7 7 3 4” into the red-LED displays of our Hewlett-Packard HP-35s and Texas Instrument TI 1200s and, when you turned it upside down, it spelled “H E L L” (calculators of the day used the “open” four, which resembled an upside-down “h”). Hey, my Commodore 64 had a “brain,” it would play 3D Tanx and recite whatever I typed: profanity, of course. So, thanks to our technological gullible intrigue, Hollywood could sell us on the bleeps n’ bloops anyway they saw fit: who knew that, with an (cathode-ray) oscilloscope and some strips of cassette tape, you could rule the world?
How? We weren’t even dialing-up by AOL, yet. We still had to insert a 5.25″ initialization disk to boot the system, Dr. Charles Forbin, be damned.
So, you heard of the tales of Joshua, the “son” of Professor Falken, aka “WOPR,” in WarGames, right? Well, take that movie . . . and recast Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy with dream-hunky Lee Montgomery (the all-grown up kid from Ben, the sequel to the original rat movie, Willard) and heart-weeping Toni Hudson (of the well-remembered ’80s comedy Just One of the Guys; the not so well-remembered School Spirit). Then replace Dabney Coleman (who I can always do without) with lovably-cranky Keenan Wynn (Laserblast) as the villain, and toss in a helping of Sam Bottoms (Up from the Depths) and a soupçon of the always-awesome Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead, Hunter’s Blood) as doubting-Thomas, good guy FBI agents. And — most importantly — reverse the roles: make the girl the hacker and the guy the ne’er do well “romantic” sidekick. And — even more importantly: instead of stopping nuclear Armageddon, we’re stopping financial Armageddon. Oh, and ditch WOPR for an oscilloscope.
Welcome to the pre-AOL cyberworld of Prime Risk. Pfft. War Games are kid stuff. Hacking computers is Risky Business!
Julie Collins (Toni Hudson) is a still-in-high-school computer engineering genius who applies for a part-time job at a local bank. Of course, this being the ’80s, the head IT job at a bank is a “man’s job.” Julie vows revenge. So, packing 128ks of RAM and an oscilloscope, she deciphers the magnetic pulses from the bank’s ATM machine, converts the electromagnetic cycles into tones, and translates the beeps ‘n boops into PIN numbers. Then, with hunks of plastic and analog tape, she burns off her own ATM cards. And as Julie, along with her cash-strapped-I-hate-my-dad school chum, Mike (Lee Montgomery), they stumble into a Russian plot to crash the Federal Reserve and collapse the U.S. economic system.
So, did you get that? The U.S. economy can be wiped out by mastering the art of magnetic information storage and retrieval — and knowing how to operate an oscilloscope. Is that conveniently-labeled “Remote Jammer Transmitter” on loan from the Batcave?
Oh, and that copy line about “. . . all he wanted was a good night kiss.” Yeah . . . the Violent Femmes just called, for our young lad wants a wee bit more than just a kiss. “Add It Up,” copy department (yuk, yuk).
No freebies on this one, kiddies. MGM owns the rights and Park Circus handles the distribution. So while it’s not available on DVD, you can stream it on Amazon Prime.
Thanks to incessant HBO replays (Over the Edge!) this forgotten, post-WarGames “ancient future” frolic turned into a well-deserved cult classic. And we have to give Farkas credit: he was the first filmmaker to the marketplace with a teen-tech hero clone, beating out the bigger studio/director WarGames-hopefuls Terminal Entry and Defense Play to the theaters. Courtesy of an extensive, May 2020 interview with writer-director Micheal Farkas at the Australian site Cult Film Alley, you can learn more about the film’s production history. (Anthony Edwards (Top Gun) instead of Lee Montgomery? Darren McGavin (The Night Stalker) instead of Keenan Wynn? Wow. Fascinating film facts, Cult Film dudes!)
Be sure to look for my reviews of Terminal Entry and Defense Play as we continue to roll out our week-long tribute to computer flicks of the ’80s.