#114) Movie review: “Atari: Game Over”

It’s the stuff of geek legend, especially among geeks who grew up in the 1980s. In the summer of 1982, Atari is seeing its domination of the home video game market faltering. The U.S. economy is slow and stores are being flooded with low-quality games. Atari has already taken lumps over the 2600 console’s poorly received version of the arcade mega-hit PacMan, so they need to come up with something big. Feeding on the success of the Raiders of the Lost Ark game, they opt to license another movie for a tie-in: the blockbuster “E.T.” Negotiations for the rights take longer than expected. With the deadline for a holiday season release approaching, game designer Howard Warshaw has only five weeks to complete “E.T.” – compared to a typical time frame of six months. The result is a product that is not only disappointing but also cited as the cause for the subsequent collapse in the video game market. In the wake of the “E.T.” disaster, millions of the unsold and returned cartridges are buried in the New Mexico desert.

Or are they?

“Atari: Game Over” (currently streaming on Netflix and available on Youtube) examines this rumor, weaving two narratives: a flashback of the rise and fall of Atari and indeed all video games between Pong and Nintendo and a present-day (2014) account of geek pilgrims lobbying the city of Alamogordo for permission to excavate the land fill and vet out the legend.

In judging such a specialized film the key question is: will it appeal to those who don’t have particular interest in the subject? In this case…probably. “Atari: Game Over” is short  (66 minutes) and engaging enough that almost anyone can find it appealing. Long story short: you shouldn’t have to beg your girlfriend to watch it with you, especially if you’ve recently sat through a romcom with her.

Director Zak Penn, noted for writing several scripts for Marvel superhero movies and for a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster, clearly has affection for the subject matter and the film plays more as a nonfiction feature than as a documentary. While there ultimately is a little more cheerleading and back-patting than necessary, the film moves at a good pace, providing engaging detail without getting too bogged down in particulars. Howard Warshaw could be seen as the protagonist. As a 25-year old he achieved acclaim with “Yar’s Revenge”, one of Atari’s most popular and well-received games. He also designed the successful “Raiders” but “E.T.” not only hurt his beloved company but sullied his reputation as well. After the demise of Atari, Warshaw moved from one industry to another, never finding the same excitement and purpose, never able to shake his attachment to the doomed game. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and xBox co-creator Seamus Blackley are among those who provide commentary and historical context. Robert Rentschler and Susie Galea (respectively the former and current mayors of Alamogordo) and waste disposal expert Joe Lewandowski are among the players in the present-day excavation.

The two storylines build to a climax on April 26th, 2014. In what has been described as “geek Woodstock”, gamers from far and wide come to witness the dig. One shows up in a deLorean; many are wearing T-shirts of classic Atari games such as “Pitfall!” and “Space Invaders.” The shovels start digging. Will the games be found? Will they be intact? What if the chemicals from the cartridges begat a bunch of radioactive pigs? Will the gathering of gamers mean redemption for Warshaw?

We love to build up and tear down and when something survives that process, be it a movie, book, song or game, it earns a special place in geek culture. Not only did “E.T.” not deserve its reputation but it also brought people together in  way that a game that was simply mediocre wouldn’t have. Ultimately, Penn is no more concerned with the results of the dig as he is with showing how the game became a touchstone for a generation and telling a story of redemption and affection for the past. As Raiford Guins, a professor of culture and technology says in the film, “I would still rather play Atari’s E.T. than any Call of Duty.”

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One Comment to “#114) Movie review: “Atari: Game Over””

  1. Sir,
    Good Job.
    You Never Forget Your First Atari 2600. Playing Atari 2600 For The First Time, First A2600 Game.
    First PC/XT, Commodore 64, C64 Sprites, 6502 Programming, 6507 Programming, …
    Good Luck.

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