1982: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a huge hit for Universal and Amblin. The cute waddling alien causes a phenomena, which of course means merchandising on a near-cosmic scale, which inevitably leads to a video game adaptation. Enter Atari, the home console giants behind Pong, and the lead innovators on both technological and creative fronts; with a near-perfect record of quality and imagination, they are the perfect match to make the game. There’s only one snag: it needs to be completed in five short weeks, in order to be ready for Christmas of 1982. Enter Howard Scott Warshaw; he works ceaselessly for the next month and-a-bit, and delivers the game on time. But in the months following the big release, whispers begin being heard, surrounding the quality of Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; then the company goes bust. In the years that follow, legend arises of a landfill dump of product in the New Mexico desert, where the company apparently – and ashamedly – buried millions of E.T. game cartridges. Like the One Ring, legend turned to myth, and E.T. began climbing to the top of lists entitled ‘The Worst Video Games of All Time.’
2013: Enter Zak Penn. Penn is no stranger to geekdom: he turned in his screenplay of Last Action Hero at the age of 23, and has worked on The Incredible Hulk, X-Men 2 and even the first draft of The Avengers. The legend of the buried E.T. cartridges burns away at him, enough so that he puts together a documentary crew to document the uncovering of the site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the games were supposedly dumped thirty years back. Along the way, Penn hooks a host of extremely interesting and widespread backgrounds; as talking heads, they fill in the extremely interesting story as Penn’s diggers reach ever closer to what may – or may not – be buried under the dirt. But by far the most important of these characters is Howard Scott Warshaw, the game designer of E.T., Atari’s most talented prodigy. His journey is a deeply moving one, for the uncovering of these cartridges could mean some kind of catharsis for him.
But it’s not all personal introspection: Atari: Game Over is also immense fun, too. Ready Player One novelist Ernest Cline, a pop culture enthusiast and defender of the E.T. game, travels to the site of the dig in George R. R. Martin’s Back to the Future DeLorean (yes, you read that right), while interviews with Atari’s high-ups lend fascinating insight into just exactly what it was that began the downfall of the company. Despite all this great content, however, Atari: Game Over does suffer from an unevenness in its pacing; at points, story threads are so criss-crossed, they become tangled for a while, giving us no clear emotional throughline to follow. But despite these narrative trespasses, there is also some clever formal license; Penn, and his interviewees, frequently describe the hunt for the cartridges using clips from other Spielberg movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the clearest comparison to be made to this mission of curiosity and desire, and what mysteries it may uncover; but the documentary never loses sight of what it means to not only Warshaw, the game’s daddy, but to gaming and film culture around the world, and the love – and sometimes obsession – that surrounds it.