Top Docs on Netflix: Atari Game Over

Top Docs on Netflix is an occasional series where POV staffers take a second look at notable docs currently available on the streaming service.

by Jeremy Wedeles

Atari: Game Over
(USA, 2014, 66 min.)
Dir. Zak Penn

THE STORY: Atari: Game Over analyzes the rise and fall of pioneering video game company Atari, which came to prominence during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. According to legend, Atari was undone by the terrible reception to the game E.T., commonly regarded as the worst video game of all time. Directed by Avengers and X-Men 2 writer Zak Penn, Atari: Game Over follows Penn as he leads a search for the millions of E.T. game cartridges that were supposedly buried by Atari in a New Mexico landfill. Penn tells the company’s history through the story of the failed game and its subsequent disappearance. The doc also explores Atari’s lasting influence on pop culture.

WHY IT’S WORTH WATCHING: For those interested in the world of Silicon Valley during its initial boom, Atari: Game Over offers an interesting perspective. In contrast to all the Microsoft and Apple startup success stories, Atari depicts an outcome of monumental failure. As Penn searches for the game that may or may not have led to Atari’s ruination, he also examines the other factors that went into the demise of Atari: an over-saturated market, rushed or pointless games, and a corporate world that didn’t understand the mentality of the game engineers.

PIVOTAL MOMENT: When the E.T. game cartridge is finally dug out of the landfill, surrounded by a crowd of fans, the doc loses something. The most important aspect of a good doc is a story or subject that is too incredible for fiction. The urban legend of the _E.T. _games burial, the sudden fall of an industry heavyweight, and the loss of loss of a cultural icon; these are almost better left untouched. Behind this urban legend is something painfully average. Atari was a company that was mismanaged and went under – it’s sad, but it’s not remarkable. Maybe that’s the point. In the end, Atari isn’t about the games or the myths, it’s about the lives the games touched and the culture they created.

FINAL SHOT: It might not fit in with the category of “Top Docs” on Netflix but Atari: Game Over has its moments. It could have benefitted from more structured storytelling, but it makes clear how much this piece of technology meant to a whole generation.