Directed by: Zak Penn
Premise: A documentary about the rise and fall of the Atari video game company and the search for the remains of the E.T. the Extra Terrestrial video game that urban legend says was buried en masse in a New Mexico landfill in 1983.
What Works: With late Generation Xers and early Millennials hitting middle age, nostalgia for the 1980s has become trendy. An entire industry has been created around repackaging older content as “special edition” releases, there has been the rise of fan driven retrospective documentaries, and Hollywood has gotten in on the act with remakes and direct sequels to older titles. As is usually the case with nostalgia, the past is siphoned through rose colored glasses and the audience remembers the media of the past in a way that’s generally flattering to the creator and to the memory of the fans. Part of what is interesting about the documentary Atari: Game Over is that it is about the failure of a retro brand and the filmmakers acknowledge the terribleness of the E.T. the Extra Terrestrial video game. This is a movie that revisits the history of Atari with fondness but the filmmakers also take a more critical look than might be expected. The Atari story is a fascinating tale. Adhering to the dominant Silicon Valley narrative, Atari: Game Over is about the fusion of art, technology, and business and the story is in many ways a prototypical boom, bubble, and bust capitalist story. The filmmakers assemble many of the key figures from Atari’s run, including game designer Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, and the company’s co-chief operating officer Manny Gerard and they are candid about their successes and failures. In addition to documenting the history of the company, Atari: Game Over is also about nostalgia and why people obsess over arcane items that our predecessors thought so little of that they buried them in the desert. The movie has a playful and irreverent tone. Director and host Zak Penn is an agreeable narrator and the film includes a lot of clever visuals including some charming retro television spots and print ads. The biggest surprise of Atari: Game Over is the way in which the film manages to be emotionally resonant. The story of this company and the attempt to recover games that were buried thirty years ago is very involving, especially as the exhumation of the landfill converges with the personal story of Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw. The enthusiasm of the movie is infectious and the documentary should be enjoyable by anyone, whether they are interested in video games or not.
What Doesn’t: Running only sixty-six minutes, Atari: Game Over is a little brief. The film adequately discusses the rise and fall of the company but there is a lot more that could have been addressed. Atari set the stage for the end of the video game arcade and prefigured the rise of other video game systems as well as the rise of the personal computer. Atari’s games also established the visual vocabulary for the way we conceive of video game play and other features like menus and orientation within the screen space but this is only mentioned in passing. Near the end of the documentary the commentators do emphasize that, contrary to popular belief, the E.T. game did not bring down Atari; it was systemic problems within the company that led to its downfall. This topic deserves greater exploration, especially regarding how the E.T. game became the scapegoat for the failure of Atari. The narrative of Atari: Game Over is split between the history of the company and the excavation of the dump site. The documentary leaps between the two narrative strands but there aren’t logical transitions between them. The movie goes from one topic to the other seemingly at random. However, it makes enough sense that the viewer can follow the two stories and they converge very nicely in the ending.
DVD extras: The film is not available commercially on DVD. It has been made available digitally through video on demand services and it can be downloaded for free (and legally) at the Microsoft website.
Bottom Line: Atari: Game Over is a fun look at the history of a groundbreaking company and an examination of the allure of nostalgia. It is a lightweight movie but it’s very satisfying.
Episode: #554 (August 9, 2015)