A film review by Craig J. Koban November 25, 2014 

ATARI: GAME OVER jjj
½ 

2014, no MPAA rating, 66 mins.

 

A documentary written and directed by Zak Penn

ATARI: GAME OVER is a thoroughly enthralling new documentary that's not only about a fascinating bit of video game history, but it also manages to be a cautionary tale of business and corporate hubris left largely unchecked.  

The first film project made under the Xbox Entertainment Studios banner (which has unfortunately now closed shop) was written and directed with great enthusiasm by Zak Penn (screenwriter of films like THE INCREDIBLE HULK and X-MEN: THE LAST STAND), who chronicles one of the great urban legends of gaming lore, but he also intimately highlights the rise and fall of Atari.  The company's net worth was $2 billion back in 1982, during which time they owned 80 per cent of the video game market share…and then in the following year the company had profit losses of over 50 per cent and essentially died during the video game crash of 1983.   

How did this all happen?  Atari was one of the great monolithic companies of the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  How could a corporation of such wealth and power in the industry fall so resoundingly hard?  It had to do – partially, at least – with the release of a game based on Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, one that Atari invested ungodly amounts of money in (over $20 million were shelled out for the rights alone) to produce within an egregiously short time (less than six weeks) in order to reach the Christmas market in 1982.  The resulting game – frequently dubbed one of the worst ever conceived for the medium – led to a consumer backlash; millions were produced, some were were indeed sold, but people began to return what they thought was a mediocre product.  A little more than a fifth of the 5 million copies of the E.T. game were sold, which was one factor among many in the downfall of Atari as a whole. 

Facing financial ruin – and a huge stockpile of unsold and unplayed games – Atari “reportedly” buried their inventory of E.T. games – as well as a host of others – in a New Mexico landfill in Alamogordo.  Now, I say “reportedly” because questions as to whether or not Atari actually perpetrated this deed were never concretely verified, and decades later an urban legend grew as to the veracity of this intriguing "what-if" scenario.  Penn, a self-professed video game fanatic, decided to make it his filmmaking mission to unequivocally prove that Atari did secretly bury thousands of copies of a game that Spielberg publicly thought was worthy of release.  And, yes, games were discovered via a massive survey and dig that occurred earlier this year in Alamogordo.  ATARI: GAME OVER emerges, as a result, with an almost archaeological interest in the gaming medium.  In a way, searching for and then ultimately discovering those E.T. cartridges at that landfill was an Indiana Jones-like adventure for Penn and his intrepid crew – those buried games were his Ark of the Covenant. 

 

 

Unlike, say, the recent – and quite disappointing – game-centric documentary VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE, ATARI: GAME OVER becomes hypnotically watchable for both avid gamers and those that have never picked up a console controller.  It’s easy to become fully immersed in Penn’s exploration – via interviews with industry creators, writers, and former Atari business heads and some nifty and frequently amusing infographics – of how a once mighty corporation became so powerless and desperate that they believed that abandoning their inventory at a garbage dump was not only a good idea, but an absolute necessity.  Even though approximately 1300 of the estimated 700,000 of the buried Atari cartridges were unearthed at the burial site, the fact remains that Atari did bury those unsold games.  Unfortunately, this scandalous act also hurt the careers of many in the industry that worked for the company. 

One of these men is Howard Scott Warshaw, a relative rock star in his field as a video game designer for Atari in the early 80’s.  Penn’s film almost becomes a rallying redemptive cry to defend Warshaw, who has often been unjustly vilified for being one of the sole reasons for Atari’s implosion.  Warshaw – who provides many matter-of-fact accounts of his time with Atari in the film – recalls the intense pressure he faced with making a game based on one of the most popular films of all time under a relatively impossible to reach deadline.  Wisely, ATARI: GAME OVER reveals Warshaw as a victim of circumstance and horrendous timing.  He made some of the most profitable games for Atari at the zenith of the company’s financial power, but even an engineering maestro such as him couldn’t possible make a viable game like E.T. ready for mass consumption considering the time restraints he had.  If anything, the documentary rightfully sympathizes with Warshaw; he’s not to blame for E.T.’s failure as a mass marketed, not-ready-for-prime-time game.  The fault really lies with a company that rushed an unworthy product to consumers in desperate hopes to make their seasonal quotas.  Regrettably, the whole incident ended Warshaw’s once blossoming video game career; he now works as a psychotherapist. 

Beyond Penn’s investigation into Atari’s history and his telling of Warshaw's deeply personal story, ATARI: GAME OVER also compellingly delves into the complexity of orchestrating the actual Alamogordo excavation dig itself.  Arguably the second person of great interest in the doc is Joe Lewandowski, a New Mexico-based landfill expert that once worked at the Alamogordo landfill back in the early 80’s and became obsessed with the whole legend of the dumped cartridges for decades.  Simply going to the supposed area of ground zero for the Atari dump was no easy task: Multiple parties needed to be engaged and convinced of the worthiness of such an enterprise – including local politicians and scientists, who feared that digging the area up could possibly have untold environmental consequences – not to mention that the sheer logistics of taking heavy machinery out to the landfill to dig in just the right spot had to be meticulously considered.  Then there was the overwhelming notion of failure that loomed over the entire project: If the Alamogordo dump revealed no buried Atari cartridges then Penn’s work would have been all for naught.  ATARI: GAME OVER truly makes you respect Penn for his instincts, determination, and unwavering commitment to his ultimate end game. 

Alas, it was a highly risky gamble that did pay off.  Yet, did the E.T. game really destroy the company that made it?  Not really.  It was but one of many other games that were discovered at the landfill (Atari produced many borderline wretched games at the time E.T. hit store shelves, which greatly contributed to the then diminishing lack of consumer confidence in the company).  One of the central ironies of ATARI: GAME OVER is that unearthed copies of E.T. that were once deemed worthless eventually went on to sell for thousands on eBay as collector’s items.  Yet, Atari imploded because of poor decision-making and equally poor timing in 1982 and not because of a single “crappy” title that the company foolishly and hastily created.  In short, Atari was insatiably greedy to make a quick buck…and it cost them dearly. 

At a remarkably brisk 60-plus minutes, ATARI: GAME OVER covers an astounding amount of narrative ground, but I wished that Penn made the film even longer to further explore this continuously remarkable microcosm of contentious video game history (the doc is, in the end, perhaps too brief for its own good considering the subject matter).  Nonetheless, Penn has crafted a riveting film about the perils of entertainment culture while simultaneously telling the more deeply insular stories of certain people directly affected – some for the worse – by Atari’s questionable business practices.  At its height, Atari was a shining beacon on its industry that seemingly saw no end of it successes in sight.  They simply looked like they could do no wrong.  ATARI: GAME OVER serves as a warning that any tech business can fail when it lets financial gluttony get in the way of inspired innovation.  

The film also shows that “burying” your past indiscretions may just indeed come back to bite you…even thirty years after the fact. 

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