Title: Atari: Game OverDirector: Zak Penn
Plot: Documentary charting the creation of the now infamous “E.T.” video game and the search for the landfill the game was reportedly buried in.
Review: One most popular video game urban legends is the story of “E.T. – The Video Game” which was rushed out by Atari for their 2600 console in order to cash in on the popularity of the film and to ensure that it was in time for Christmas. However this left game designer Howard Scott Warshaw with five weeks to code and finish the game in order to meet the insane deadline set by the company. Unsurprisingly the game was deemed a flop, let alone one of the worst games ever made leading to Atari burying the cartridges in a landfill in the New Mexico desert. It’s a myth that this documentary sets out to uncover the truth behind while charting the history of the game creation which has largely been blamed for the collapse of Atari.
Now for myself I never had an Atari with my parents not wanting to buy my brother and me a games console like my friends, instead opting to buy an Amiga which while its true I could have used for school work, but instead mainly used for gaming with many a misspent hour being spent playing “Space Crusade” and “Cannon Fodder”. This being said I’ve never had much of a connection to Atari like many other gamers, but this in no way stopped me from having a blast with this documentary.
Directed by Zak Penn, who is probably better known for his screenwriting and whose previous documentary “Incident at Loch Ness” saw him searching for Nessie with Werner Herzog here takes a laidback approach to the material, while shooting in a similarly humorous style to Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) the documentary breaks up the main meat of the film following the excavation of the mythical dig site with the history of the games creation. It makes for an fascinating watch, even if the sections surrounding the history of Atari is wooly and sporadic to say the least, which will no doubt infuriate the video game history buffs. More surprisingly though is the attempts by the film to restore the tarnished legacy of Howard Scott Warshaw who here features extensively throughout the film as he talks about his time with Atari which appears from Warshaw’s recollections to have been a much wilder place than you would have expected, with tales of copious drug use at work let alone eccentric behaviour of some of the game designers. Still despite Warshaw now having long left the computer programing world and now working as a therapist, it would seem that Penn and several of his interviewees would like to see Warshaw receiving prestige for his contributions to video games which they clearly feel he doesn’t get due to being the one who created the game.
The sections concerning the search for the mythical landfill site are surprisingly fascinating with the search being headed up by Waste Disposal Expert Joe Lewandowski who sounds strangely similar to Ray Romano which added an unintentionally funny edge to his segments of the film. At the same time we have Penn framing his search for the site by comparing him to Indiana Jones as the documentary frequently uses footage from the film and even reinacts the warehouse scene to close the film. At the same time it’s amusing to see the pilgrimage of nerds which the news of the dig attracts while at the same time highlighting their dedication to the love of these old games as they brave sandstorms while essentially standing around in the desert waiting for a big reveal which not even happen.
An entertaining documentary even if its history sections could have been improved, while the short runtime did leave me wishing it had been longer, especially when the journey to the truth behind the dig site is so much fun.