Atari: Game Over: Movie Review

This week I’m going to finally go back through all my handwritten notes from the Atari dig and my various notes on articles that I have read in my efforts to understand what we as archaeologists (doing what someone called “fake archaeology”) could learn from and add to what happened there. It made sense for me to begin my week by watching the documentary that brought us to the landfill in Alamogordo, NM. 

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I’m not much of a movie reviewer type. In fact, I don’t really like movies. I guess I sometimes find them entertaining, but I’m not a “cinema” guy and the more important a “film” is the more difficult I find it to pay attention or sit still.

That being said, I did enjoy Zak Penn’s Atari: Game Over, and not just because I have two and half lines of dialogue during which I mention Strohs and wood, although that was awesome. By the way, you can watch it for free! FREE! 

While the movie is superficially about Atari and the E.T. video games buried in the New Mexico desert, Penn seems mainly interested in unpacking myth along loosely Freudian lines. This is not surprising for a guy who has spent his career adapting comic books to film. It is also not surprising for a guy who has done movies with the likes of Werner Herzog whose best work has almost nothing to do with what it’s about.

For some basic background, the video game E.T. was introduced in 1982 and was widely derided as the worst video game ever made. By 1983, it was clear that both the game and the entire Atari company was in trouble and by the end of that year, the company was taking drastic steps to manage losses. As part of that process, thousands of E.T. games were dumped in an Alamogordo, NM landfill. For a decade or so, the Atari dump was largely forgotten, but with the dawn of the internet age, people began to revive the memory of this event and ascribe to it legendary (or even mythical) proportions. The film, Atari: Game Over, takes this myth and the 1980s Atari phenomenon as a starting point for reflecting on how the first generation of home video-gamers construct video game culture and history.

So the film starts with Zak Penn linking Atari to his own childhood. Childhood is key here. Andrew Reinhard, then, introduces the mythic element. Freud, of course, argues that myths represent the wishes of our childhood, which, for better or for worse, the rational world of adulthood suppresses. Atari is a figment of our childhood, transformed into myth, and perpetuated in stories like the secret Atari burial ground (or the Loch Ness monster, for that matter). The existence of secret “Easter Eggs” embedded in some of the legendary video games like Adventure and, of course, E.T., is a doubly mythic sledgehammer. The Easter Bunny, the myth of the eternal return, and the sudden reappearance of the absent creator god via his initials secreted into video game play makes clear that this is not a film about the video game industry any more than Fitzcarraldo is about a boat. As the Atari founder Nolan Bushnell puts it, “Adults just don’t get it.”

The entire film is filled with the interlocking stories of childhood, the early years of Atari, the Atari game myth, and the utter irrelevance of the superficial adult world. The film was anchored, of course, by the excavation of the famous dump of E.T. cartridges in the Alamogordo landfill. Excavation, of course, is gesture familiar to anyone who has read even a little Freud. This movie is not subtle.

Howard Scott Warshaw is the star of the film. He is engaging and sympathetic and has what I believe some folks would call “camera presence.” He was the designer of the E.T. game as well as a number of other huge hits for Atari in the early 1980s – including Yar’s Revenge (which contained an Easter Egg) and, of course (in case you didn’t get it) Indiana Jones. Warshaw describes the creative, ecstatic, and chaotic atmosphere at Atari in the early 1980s. Puerile humor (Ho-weird), drugs, women, summersaults down grassy hills, and hot tubs reinforced the motto “We take fun seriously.” Of course, in the world of myth, fun is serious business and a necessary accompaniment to childhood. Warshaw tells as much when he says that his time at Atari made it very difficult to find another job as satisfying, creative, and exciting for his next 20-odd years of adulthood.

Much of the serious history of Atari is narrated by Manny Gerard, a Time Warner Executive, who made it clear that the culture at Atari was incompatible with the adult world (after all, they just don’t get it), and this created major issues for the company. The most major of these is when the late Steve Ross, a Time Warner executive negotiated a $22 million deal with Steven Spielberg to bring E.T. from the big screen to the Atari VCS. Warshaw is dragged from his hot tubs and wordplay to produce this game in 5 weeks. Spielberg enjoyed it and approved it, and to remind of you the mythic origins, Penn provides a clip of the TV commercial where an offscreen E.T. tosses Elliot (the little boy from the E.T. movie) the game.

Warshaw attempted to create a game where the player had genuine emotional connections with the character and gameplay. E.T. had to escape the adults including an FBI agent who wanted what you had and a Scientist who wanted who you were. Elliot was your ally and he was the only one who could help E.T. avoid the adults and other pitfalls to return home.

The author Ernie Cline appears in the film and reinforces the connection between Atair, the E.T. game, and childhood euphoria stating at one point that he “loves people who love things.” Cline lets us know about the Easter Eggs in E.T. which, when discovered, transform the famous flower from the movie into Yar from Yars Revenge, and Indiana Jones from that game. He savored the myth of the E.T. burial, but was perhaps a little too enthusiastic about debunking it as he adventured his way from Austin to Alamogordo in his DeLorean with a stuffed E.T. doll as his copilot. Yeah, I’m serious.

Throughout the end of the 1970s and early 1980s Atari was the fastest growing company in history. When the E.T. game flopped, Manny Gerard claims that he had to actually call and ask the finance folks whether Atari was making its numbers. To his surprise, they were not and had lost hundreds of millions of dollars (who knew?!). A new CEO entered (from Philip Morris, no less). Folks lost their jobs, the party ended, and unsold or returned inventory had to be dumped. The Alamogordo landfill was a convenient place to bury almost everyone in the film’s childhood. All that was left was memory which, of course, informed myth, and fueled a neurotic nostalgia.

Joe Lewandowski, the amiable Alamogordo garbagologist and amateur archaeologist,  provided the crucial clue to unpacking our collective childhood by painstakingly identifying the pit in which the Atari game was buried. Zak Penn is on hand for parts of the search despite the best efforts of various adults – dressed in snazzy suites and talking officially – to undermine the project. Lewandowski, Penn, and company got permissions not only excavate the landfill and, perhaps in a Jungian turn, to resolve their lingering childhood by revealing and rationalizing these myths as parts of our collective unconscious. In other words, it’s good to enjoy video games, to “love things,” to read comic books, to watch movies based on comic books, to go into the friggin’ New Mexico desert looking for buried E.T. cartridges. These things are normal. We’re normal. Even Ho-wierd Scott Warshaw’s painful nostalgia for his days at Atari is normal.

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We just need to avoid the adults, excavate through the detritus of our over-burdend contemporary life, and prove to the world that myths are real, and our collective neurosis will be resolved. Of course, it’s no surprise in the end that the heavy equipment discovered the games at 28 ft. below the surface of the landfill. The youthful and exuberant Andrew Reinhard with his team of serious archaeologists validated the discovery. Raiford Guins unpacked the significance of the find. Zak Penn’s anxiety was put to rest and Howard Scott Warshaw was visibly emotional that so many people continued to care about something that he made. It is clear that the myth of the E.T. game, of the Atari dump, of the video game world, and even Ernie Cline’s DeLorean, all matter and linger on, powerfully, just below the adult world.

The Easter Egg in the film comes toward the end when Penn reveals that Warshaw finally found a profession that brought him the same satisfaction as his youthful days at Atari: he’s a psychotherapist.

The rest of the movie lets you down easily. The dump in Alamogordo wasn’t an effort to hide the E.T. game from humanity. It was a routine warehouse inventory dump to save money. In fact, the dump wasn’t only E.T. Games, but a whole range of Atari games, many of which had been returned or were unsold. The myth that the failure of the E.T. game destroyed Atari was also debunked. 

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