Atari: Game Over (Zak Penn, 2014)

The Video Game E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is an infamous piece of video gaming history. Everyone knows how it went: in 1983 Howard Scott Warshaw (Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark) was given five weeks to produce a game for the Atari 2600 system alongside the release of the film and in time for the Christmas market. An over-confident board pushed to produce a market-saturating amount of cartridges based on the game being a best-seller, but when the reviews came in and everyone discovered that the game was terrible, the sales dried up. Atari started getting large amounts of returns of the cartridge and realised they were haemorrhaging money, so (the legend has it) they decided to dump some 700,000 cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico.

This film covers the history of the gaming industry, specifically Atari, the background to the game’s release and Howard Scott Warshaw’s part in the game. The main point of interest, though, was built around the highly anticipated excavation of the landfill to uncover the truth behind the cover-up and see if the burial really happened. I won’t ruin the result of the excavation, though it was a huge news story when it happened.

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now "go home".

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now “go home”.

The film was of huge interest to me and the subject matter was something I was happy to dedicate an hour of my life to. The director, as the film clearly lays out, is of great stock, having recently help screenwrite several huge Marvel films (including The Avengers). However, in comparison to Blackfish (which I watched in the same sitting), the storytelling failed to get me hooked. It has a short running time so there was no padding, but it just lacked the emotional power that is so evident in the great documentaries or modern cinema. There was nothing terrible about it – there was some good analysis of Atari in their booming year, a great side-story with Ernest Cline (author of the excellent Ready Player One) and a very brief cameo from George R.R. Martin. I just didn’t make the connection I hoped I would.

I perhaps wonder whether the short running time wasn’t enough. there was easily a further ten minutes on each of the two main topics: the history of Atari as a company being the first and the excavation of the landfill site being the second. I left wanting to find out more and though the information is available on the internet I don’t think there was a better platform than this to tell the whole story.

For a more engaging and humorous take on the excavation, check out Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, which pays no attention to the facts and spends its time trying to keep us entertained instead. Atari: Game Over counts as a near miss for me.

Atari: Game Over is available now on Netflix.

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