E.T.-Trash to Treasure

Trailer for “Atari: Game Over” 

“Atari: Game Over,” directed by Zak Penn, is a documentary about the urban legend of the burial of Atari’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” game cartridges. The 2014 documentary follows the 1982 development of the video game by Howard Scott Warshaw from the deal with Warner to the five-week creation. Moreover, the history and downfall of Atari is explained, including the shameful burial of the cartridges. Also covered is the work that Joe Lewandowski, a waste disposal expert and historian, went through to excavate the cartridges. The documentary ends with the discovery of the missing “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” game cartridges in Alamogordo, a New Mexico desert landfill.

“Atari: Game Over” comments on a specific game, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, but speaks mainly to the industry of video games as a whole. In popular culture, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is oft cited as the reason for Atari’s decline. The documentary clears up this misconception by focusing on the missteps that Atari took, especially in its technology, deployment of games, and marketing that led to its demise. These missteps echoed other video game makers in the industry took and explains the fall of the video game industry in the 1980’s. Another comment on the video game industry made in this documentary is the failed career of Howard Scott Warshaw. After the release of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” Howard Scott Warshaw could not work in the industry again, despite being an innovator and contributor to its history. In a sense, “Atari: Game Over” reclaims Howard Scott Warshaw’s credibility and reinstates him as a trailblazer in early gaming.

Watch from 11:11 to 12:01

This documentary also showcases a lot of video game culture, especially the aspect of video game urban legends. The main video game legend focused on is the burial of the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” cartridges in New Mexico. The fact that thousands of people came to watch crews dig dirt with the hope of finding the lost cartridges, speaks to the pervasiveness of this lore and the curiosity of video gamers. The documentary also speaks to the culture of video game development. In the 1980’s at Atari, the culture was very loose and casual. This is what Howard Scott Warshaw accredits his hubris to, especially when he was faced with designing the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” game in 5 weeks.

Regarding its presentation of video game ideas, “Atari: Game Over” displays the development process of a movie to a game cartridge. The wooing of Spielberg, the deal with Warner Brothers, and the “worst 5 weeks” of Howard Scott Warshaw’s life are all presented in the documentary. The world of the game is also discussed in this documentary. Despite its 5 week creation, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” created a 3D map environment in which the player navigates. This innovation is often overlooked as the focus lies in the burial of the cartridges and the death of Atari.


The technological apparatuses examined in the documentary are the Atari 2600 and the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” Atari cartridges. The Atari 2600 in this documentary is presented in a very nostalgic way. Because of the memories it carries for all of the interviewees, it is hard to tell without playing the Atari 2600 how great of a machine it is. Additionally, there is some interviewer bias as the people interviewed are all hardcore gamers. Because the interviewer decided to interview this type of gamer, the average person who games occasionally is not represented. Thus the opinions of the interviewees are a step away from reality and towards their rose-tinted view of the past in terms of their early play with the Atari 2600. Some of their opinions, like the Atari 2600 being the impetus behind the computer movement, are overblown. Attributing the entire computer revolution to a video game console seemed very reductionary to me. This realization helped me acknowledge that Zak Penn presents the history of the Atari 2600 and the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” cartridges in an idealistic, almost utopian fashion.


The audience for the movie is open to everyone. Devoted gamers and non-gamers would be able to follow the documentary and the content presented. Because anyone can view this documentary on Amazon Prime or Netflix, the audience may come in with varied expectations of video games. Some people may think that video games cause violence in children, whereas some may think that Atari is the driver of all the technology we have today. However, at the end of the documentary an audience should understand the intense development of video games and the technology that goes into its creation.

Watch from 40:00 to 40:55

Lastly, “Atari: Game Over” uses familiar tropes to show the difference between the real world and the game world. Because this film is clearly a documentary, the game play of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is shown. Other games like “Yar’s Revenge” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” game play are also shown. The interesting feature that makes this documentary unique is its use of graphics that distort reality. The director used graphics to display how much dirt must be moved before getting close to where the cartridges may be. The director also used maps to show the real world in a way that presented more information to the audience.

“Atari: Game Over” gives the audience a fascinating but brief look into Atari’s rise and fall. It focuses on Howard Scott Warshaw and his development of video games, with most of the attention given to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” However, the strength of this documentary lies in the glimpses it shows into video game development and video game culture. These aspects are not often shown, so a documentary bolding examining these is different. All in all, “Atari: Game Over” is a refreshing reminder of Atari’s past and how sometimes history will reappear in new and exciting ways.

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