For years, there was an urban legend circulating among a specific subset of the nerd/geek community about an extra-terrestial mass burial, somewhere in the desert of New Mexico. Okay, to be fair, it was about a land-fill in Alamagordo, NM, which was rumored to be where, in 1983, Atari buried the thousands of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial game cartridges it couldn’t sell. Because it was a bad game, maybe the worst videogame ever made, possibly the game that effectively killed Atari as a company.
Using this apocryphal event as his touchstone, filmmaker Zak Penn (The Avengers, Alphas, Incident at Loch Ness) spins out the history of Atari — which invented the videogame as we know it — reframes the career of designer and engineer Howard Scott Warshaw, and leads an archaeological dig to see if there’s any truth to the legend. (Spoiler alert — and I’m only doing this because news of the results of the dig were all over the internet this past summer — those games were indeed down there.)
Penn was kind enough to talk about the perilous prospect of making Atari: Game Over, a documentary he didn’t know the ending to, why Atari is worth enshrining, and why, just maybe, X-Men: The Last Stand isn’t the movie you think it is.
Growing up an Atari kid, which I was, I never heard of the Atari dump, even anecdotally. When did you first hear about it?
You know, I don’t remember exactly, to be honest, because it wasn’t like when we were kids it was that big a deal. It was not on our radar. Somewhere in the 2000’s probably I heard about it. I mean, I was certainly aware of the game. I had the game when it came out.
But part of what was fascinating about it was kind of tracing how did this crazy story get conflated this way? How did this dump and E.T. being a bad game get linked into this crazy meta narrative?
What was the point of no return for you? Even though you couldn’t know what was at the bottom of the pit, when did you decide to pull the trigger and say “Okay, this is a thing we’re gonna do even if we don’t find anything?”
Well, pretty much from the beginning. When I got hired to do it, Xbox had already had this company Fuel that had done a bunch of research and they had hired Lightbox to produce it —they needed a director and they hired me. So I was coming into this thing and that was one of my first questions, “What happens if we don’t find it?” They said, “You tell us.”
The plan was to make a movie that was as much about trying to make a good documentary, almost like a deconstruction of documentaries; in case we didn’t find anything. I really was approaching it like I have to be prepared for both scenarios. In which case the movie would have been much more about Atari and much more about my own inability to complete this movie in a satisfactory way.
Watching it, one feels the kind of giddy nervousness that comes with watching someone tell a story that they themselves don’t know the ending to.
I really didn’t know. For most of the film, I really didn’t know what was going to happen. Once you start to really look at how easy it would be to miss the games, that’s the part that kind of freaked me out when I got on the ground. Wait, even if Joe Lewandowski’s done all his research, if he digs five feet in the wrong direction, we will find nothing. You couldn’t dig up the whole landfill. You couldn’t even come close. You could dig up a small percentage of it. So if he wasn’t really accurate with what his calculations were, we were screwed. And we had very little time. We basically had 48 hours.
At what point in the process did you find the story? What’s the process of collating all this information, all this footage, and whittling it down to here’s what the story is?
It was pretty clear, even before we went to the dig, in the pre-interviews, that Howard was going to be, if not the central character, a central character in the story. He was good on camera, he had a pretty compelling story to tell. It was just clear from the first interview we’re following him. We made sure he was going to be at the dig.
Same with Joe Lewandowsky, the guy who organized it. Okay, clearly this guy’s quest [to find where the games were buried] is gonna be part of this movie. It wasn’t until after we’ve done the dig and seen the footage that you really can make a very clear choice about where you’re going. It’s actually kind of scary. There’s not a shitload of time. You’re basically assembling this movie and saying, “Okay, I think this is what it’s about.”
The dig kind of dictated everything. We were supposed to do the dig in February and it just kept getting pushed back by environmental authorities. If we didn’t find anything, those two days, there was no returning six months later. So it was pretty stressful. You’re sitting there with all this footage and trying to assemble it and trying to figure out how many people’s stories are there.
How much did you know about Howard Scott Warshaw going in? Did you know he was going to be the pivot point for you?
Howard made this documentary, Once Upon Atari, so I knew what his deal was and what he was like. Although he was kinda different in person than he appeared in that documentary. So I knew vaguely. One thing I didn’t realize, honestly, was most of the people in this video, not just Howard but Joe as well, these guys are kind of geniuses. Howard is, in engineering, probably a genius by any definition. I think Joe kind of is too. They’re both extremely interesting thinkers.
To a certain extent I realized this is about a group of really smart people doing something that is a little bit silly. I don’t want to say silly, but they’re making this game E.T. that doesn’t come out well and then burying it and then digging it up, you know what I mean? It’s not like they’re building a better energy source.
There’s always something magnetic about the creation of art, even if that art is — not to say less than — but you know, you’re not writing the “Moonlight Sonata,” you’re making a video game. And not a great one at that. But there’s still something awesome about watching a person do that. And watching a person talk about doing that.
Some of those video games are like Moonlight Sonata. The one I often cite is Asteroids, just because it’s the easiest to comprehend. Not that it’s my favorite game, but it’s such a simple idea so perfectly rendered. As Seamus [Blackley, co-creator of the Xbox] says in the movie, “three lives” was invented by a person. There are certain aspects to certain video games that are just beautiful. Like the way that those various elements are arranged. It’s not just craft, it’s art. But I agree, E.T. is not the “Moonlight Sonata.”
One can’t help but draw a couple of parallels between Warshaw, who was unjustly credited with making the worst video game of all time, and consequently killing Atari, and yourself, who was unjustly credited with writing the worst X-Men movie ever.
You could go back even further to Last Action Hero, which was actually how Howard and I bonded. We talked about how that was the first thing I wrote. I sold it, it was really exciting, Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to star in it and then, at the time, people were calling it the biggest bomb ever. It was not accurate, but still. I didn’t like the movie. I was very disappointed. And having people criticize you for it and then, much later, for there to be some sort of reckoning — where people say wait a second, it’s actually a pretty interesting idea, it’s not done perfectly but it’s certainly not close to the worst thing ever.
X-Men 3… I think people should go watch the movie again. I don’t think it’s perfect, I think there are a lot of problems, I think the second half of it suffers for a variety of reasons, but there are 17 good scenes at the beginning of that movie that totally felt right — by the way, Bryan Singer said the same thing when he saw it. It felt like if you put Bryan Singer’s name on the beginning of that movie people would have said “Oh, really good, very consistent with X-Men 2. I really believe that. Cyclops getting killed, yes, that was a political decision made above everybody’s heads. But it’s weird. Whenever I am at a convention or someplace somebody will come up to me about X-Men and be like “I hated X-Men 3, that was the worst movie.”
So I ask, “What did you hate?”
They go, “Oh, it’s just terrible. It’s such a bad story, and Cyclops gets killed.”
“Oh, yeah, I get why you didn’t like that. So did you like the opening scene? Did you like the scene with Xavier and Magneto and they go see young Jean Grey?” And they’re like, “Oh, that was a good scene. I’ll give you that.”
“Okay, what about the scene where Angel is cutting of his wings?”
They say, “That was a good scene. I like that one too. That’s good.”
I literally walk them through: “What about when Mystique breaks Magneto out? What about when Magneto flips it and leaves her behind?”
It just goes on and on. Wait a second. You don’t hate this movie. It’s just become a thing to say. I’ve worked on movies like Last Action Hero; there are legitimate things wrong with it that people are right to criticize. I get why people criticize Fantastic Four or Elektra. I totally get it. That movie should have been R-rated and it doesn’t work.
What do you think? As an objective viewer — you know the movies. What do you think makes it so bad?
I don’t think it’s a bad movie. I don’t think it’s a great movie. But I think there’s this bonding people had with X-Men 2. They came to the first X-Men and they felt that thing an X-Men story does to you — it vibes with your adolescent self. It vibes with the part of you that’s an outcast. And then X-Men 2 deepened that. It went deeper with the allegories and metaphors and it gave you a richer world. Then you get to number 3, which makes some turns I don’t think fans were hoping it would make. Not that it’s a horrible movie, but it’s not the movie they wanted. There’s the misplaced entitlement that comes with being a fan. “I want this, I deserve this.” I’ve given you this, I want that. When that doesn’t happen, people — especially nerds — turn really fast.
That I get. It’s funny: I worked on X-Men 2 also. When I go back and watch X-Men 2 — which I really liked, of course — it has a lot of the same problems as X-Men 3. It’s got six endings and all sorts of problems.
Anyway, end of rant. But believe me, I know how Howard feels. I hadn’t really thought about it as much in terms of X-Men — I wish someone would come along and make a documentary about X-Men 3.
Last question. We seem to be in this period of nostalgia for the beginning of computers as we know it, between two Steve Jobs movies, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, and this. Why is now the time we are turning back to these stories, the formation of this era?
When we were talking about when the story of E.T. being the worst game ever started, Howard said you can’t really talk about the worst anything until it’s been around for 25 years. You can’t make a best of list five years into the cycle. There was an overwhelming feeling that video games were a fad. Particularly when the Atari crash happened. It confirmed what a lot of people thought, which is that video games was like the hula hoop. The idea of the home video game console? It was fun, but it’s not like this isn’t an art form, it’s a fad. Obviously that thinking was really costly for the people who felt that way.
Those of us who grew up on them are like, “Are you crazy? Video games are as important as movies or TV or books. It’s part of our life.” There are still board games, why would there not be video games? It’s taken a long time to get through people’s thick skulls that video games are not going away. That they’re not only not going away, they are popular for a really good reason. They’re awesome. They’re awesome to play. They make you feel awesome as you play them when they’re good.
It is history and it’s important history. Think about what Atari spawned. Apple came out of Atari. Atari had a patent on basically what would have been the internet and it lapsed. But Atari was a pretty amazing place and a lot of modern culture came out of it. What’s more important than the computer revolution?
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He still has the joystick callous from that old 2600 controller.