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.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (James Rolfe, 2014)

I remember a couple of years ago when I saw the queues of young girls stood outside the theatre awaiting the release of the latest One Direction Movie, 1D: This Is Us. I’m pretty sure I passed a snide comment to whoever I was with at the time berating the popularity of the film, which was clearly not aimed at me. I wasn’t the “target audience”. Nonetheless, what a bunch of idiots standing there to watch such a rubbish film.

One for the fans

One for the fans

It took me until last night to realise how wrong I was to do this. My wife was out of the house and so I saw it as a perfect opportunity to finally watch the imported copy of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie [1]. Alas, my wife returned home and walked in just as The Nerd threw up over a copy of Eee Tee 2 and the woman holding it. As I looked towards the door, I saw myself reflected back: bemusement, disdain and a lack of willingness to understand. I guess that means that I’m a teenage girl and James Rolfe is Harry Stiles. Maybe.

And that’s the point. This is by no means a film for everyone. It is specifically a film for the fans of James Rolfe’s character The Angry Video Game Nerd, the central character in his webisodic (it’s now a word) series in which he reviews terrible old games in a foul-mouthed and occasionally aggressive manner. It’s a film full of references to the series, made for the fans, and a pet project for Rolfe to flex his big-budget muscles and show exactly what he can do once he leaves his underground lair.

The storyline concerns the release of Eee Tee 2, the sequel to Eee Tee, the biggest flop in video game history (and barely hiding the reference to E.T.). The Nerd has always refused to review this game, but when an opportunity arises to go to New Mexico and dig up the infamous New Mexico Atari landfill as a tie in to the sequel, he agrees. The Nerd and his two assistants start the quest but are pursued by federal agent General Dark Onward, who believes The Nerd is trying to investigate Area 51.

It is quite a convoluted plot but it’s not really there to win any awards for screenplays. It’s a platform on which Rolfe bases some quite hilarious moments and I see the film as a success. Yes, it’s probably a little long but I can forgive Rolfe for this – he was bringing his own dream to life and wanted to make sure his fans got the most out of it. Some of the script feels a little like it’s deliberately trying to aspire to be a cult film, and it gets very silly at times, but it’s delivered with enough charm to be forgiven for a few misfires.

There’s a nice bonus at the end, where he finally reviews E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on the Atari, which he has never previously done. The bonus features on the disc are plentiful and give a bit of insight into the film (though many of the featurettes were previously available during the making of the film on Cinemassacre).

Steer clear if you have never heard of The Nerd before but if you want to see what he’s capable of it’s worth the plunge.

[1] For those in the UK, the best option to see the movie in HD is to import from Amazon.com. Be warned though – you will pay through the nose for the postage and then get slapped with import duty when it arrives. It’s expensive and if you aren’t fussed about the HD then you have an option to stream from Cinemassacre for a small fee.