Friday, August 14, 2015

Atari: Game Over

Year 7, Day 226 - 8/14/15 - Movie #2,120

BEFORE:  This one makes the documentary cut because it lives in an area I'm quite familiar with - video-games, and urban myths.  A couple of weeks ago, the whole animation studio went out for drinks at Barcade, and because I arrived late, I wasn't included in the impromptu Ms. Pac-Man tournament.  Finally I got to play a game, and just smoked everyone's scores - everyone sort of forgot that I was the oldest one there, and that I grew up during the 1980's.  Oh, did I not mention that I've been playing this game since it was invented?  Must have slipped my mind.  (These youngsters didn't even know the strategy of parking Ms. Pac-Man in a corner, near the power pills and waiting for the ghosts to draw near - some of them just thought that you had to keep moving, no matter what.  Watch and learn, kids.)  

Tonight's film is set in Alamogordo, New Mexico - not far from where the atom bomb was first developed, as seen in "Fat Man and Little Boy". 

THE PLOT:  A crew digs up all of the old Atari 2600 game cartridges of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" that were tossed into a landfill in the 1980s.

AFTER: Werner Herzog made an appearance in this film!  For, like, a second and a half - but it counts!  I said that I'd suspend linking for the duration of the documentary chain, but it happened anyway!  It's so nice when reality falls in step with the patterns that you've established.  This film's director, Zak Penn, worked with Herzog on a documentary titled "Incident at Loch Ness", and used footage of the German director to establish his credentials - so Herzog carries over from "Grizzly Man".   

Like Zak Penn, I am fascinated by urban legends - and unfortunately, the spread of such things has only gotten worse since the internet was invented.  This technological marvel that was intended to be an accessible store house of the world's knowledge can instead allowed rumors and misinformation to be spread even more efficiently.  I guess it turns out that stupid is faster than smart - or at least it's more fantastic, which allows people to create and spread stories that seem to good to be true. 

Oh, there are still ways to research things - I've tried not to pass anything along unless I've researched it on "The Straight Dope" site or at least Wikipedia, but for most people in this fast-paced world, it's forward first, research later (or never).  The problem is, most average people can't tell the difference between fact, fiction and an "Onion" headline - one of those about the FIFA soccer scandal got mistaken for actual news earlier this year by a government official in a country where they apparently haven't invented humor yet.  And that's why I was so hesitant to believe the online stories that made the rounds in July about how all of last winter's snow had NOT melted yet in Boston and Buffalo.  When I finally had the time to research this and found it was true, every time I tried to talk about it, people said, "I know, I sent YOU that story."  Right, but you didn't research it and confirm it before forwarding it, now did you?  

So that leads to stories about the kid from the Life cereal having died from combining Pop Rocks and soda - and even when you interview the adult kid and prove he's alive, or someone eats both of those things together and lives, the legends persist.  So that brings us to the "E.T." videogame, and the rumor that millions of copies were buried in a landfill in New Mexico, because the game was so terrible and wasn't selling.  These days, people regularly list "E.T." as the worst video-game ever produced - and the party line is that the game "killed" Atari and the video-game industry as a whole.

Well, let's correct a few things, something the documentarians also set out to do - "E.T." was a simple, graphics-challenged yet frustrating Atari cartridge game, but I'm betting it wasn't THE worst game ever.  That honor should probably go to "Custer's Revenge", for a whole host of reasons.  It wasn't the first videogame tied in to a Hollywood film, either - it was predated by games based on "Tron", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Empire Strikes Back" - I remember controlling the snowspeeder to shoot down AT-AT's on the Atari 2600 at my friend's house, and that game had to have come out before "E.T." did in Christmas 1982.   

Another popular misconception - did the E.T. videogame "kill" Atari?   No one release can kill a company, any more than a bad film can kill a studio, or a bad comic-book can kill Marvel or DC - for an entertainment company to go bust, there has to be a pattern of malfeasance, or consistently bad marketing for some time.  In this case, there were corporate decisions made about the "E.T." game that had everything to do with getting it ready for the Christmas season - could the game be produced in 5 weeks?  It seems that getting it out on time may have taken precedence over making the game fun, or at least playable.

But even this leads to larger questions - if everyone tries to make the best game (or comic book, or novel, or film) they can, then why isn't everything "good"? Why aren't more things better?  Can we only recognize how good certain things are by comparing them to things that are worse?  Do we need the dark so that we can occasionally recognize the light?  If everything is subjective, then how can anything be "worse" than anything else?  Sure enough, people come forward in this film to say that the game is not so bad, although one kid says he likes it because he likes "things that are horrible."  Go away, kid, you're not helping.  

The other people say that programmer Howard Scott Warshaw did a fine job, "considering the timetable he had".  This is a bit like saying that your health is just fine, if you ignore the lung cancer.  But there's footage of Steven Spielberg, saying in an interview that the game seemed like a lot of fun - way to cross-promote, Stevie.  And while the film turned out to be an uplifting encounter between a boy and an alien (albeit a thinly-veiled Jesus metaphor), the video-game became a symbol of how frustrating life can be when your character falls into a hole every few seconds.  I suppose marketing it as "the game that your kids will stare at for hours" didn't really help.  But people bought it like crazy in Christmas 1982, and things were going fine until people tried to play the damn thing. 

The rest of the film concerns itself with Atari's downfall as a company - which one on level doesn't make sense, because video gaming is a bigger industry than ever.  How did Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft eventually succeed after Atari went bust?  Somewhere, there must be a problem with being first in the marketplace - and if a company is successful, on some level, it may get too comfortable.  Not to mention that if any company achieves some level of success, suddenly there will be 8 other companies trying to beat them at their own game.  As Atari went, so did Compuserve.  So did IBM.  There's some connection there, with regards to a failure to respond to the changes in what their customers want, or perhaps the changing trends in an expanding marketplace.  As I said earlier in the week, eventually the free market takes care of things. 

But what lessons can be learned from failure, or specifically, THIS failure?   Let's take a current example, the reboot of Marvel's "Fantastic Four" as a movie franchise.  Right now the director, Josh Trank, is in trouble for sending a tweet out that claims he had a "much better" cut of the film a year ago, which will never get released.  Right - this is something Roger Corman once believed too, but if you can get a copy of his unreleased 1994 film, you'll see how off-base he was.  That was another example of making a product just to fulfill a time-table (if he hadn't made the film, the rights to the franchise would have reverted back to Marvel) and as we've seen, that's like the enemy of creativity. 

So Josh Trank is only the latest to take these super-hero characters and put his spin on them - Tim Story tried in 2005, with a film that did fine at the box office but got mixed reviews from critics - and the sequel swung for the fences and also came up short critically - so who's to blame?  The filmmakers, the critics, the audiences?  Maybe they should have shown Galactus, maybe they shouldn't have made Dr. Doom organic metal powers - maybe before monkeying around with the characters, someone should have realized that they weren't broken to begin with.  

Maybe, Josh Trank, it takes more than changing one character's race and turning a dictator into a hacker to make a story culturally relevant.  Maybe a director needs to ask himself, "But, is this a relevant story?  Does this work as a narrative?  Is this, ultimately, what the people want to see?"  And maybe those are the kind of questions that can't be answered - at the end of the day you just have to put out the best movie (or comic, or book, or video-game) that you can, and then try to stand behind it instead of disavowing it at the first whiff of failure.  Man, even Spielberg had to pimp for what he HAD to know was a crappy videogame tie-in.  

And if you manage to make a "good" film (if that even means anything), you should try and fight for it.  Who had final cut on this "Fantastic Four" picture, anyway?  If the director has final cut, he should exercise that option and make the film that he wants to make, right or wrong (umm, unless he's really, really wrong).  If the studio has final cut, then the director has no right to second-guess the studio or throw them under the bus on Twitter.  What a director should NOT do is make concessions to the studio and then try to distance himself after the fact - the making of a film consists of a thousand small decisions and a few big ones, you just have to make the best decisions you can at every juncture and then try to be happy with the final product.  

But overall, this is ridiculous - how could the Fantastic Four characters have been handled so well in the comic books by Lee and Kirby in the 1960's, and in the 1980's by people like John Byrne, and then bungled so badly on-screen?  Why are the Avengers and the X-Men doing so well as movie franchises when the F.F. is not?  Can't anyone here play this game?  It can't JUST be superhero-movie burn-out, can it?  Because we've got like, a ton of these on the horizon.  Perhaps it's just like anything else - taste is subjective, and we can only rate things by comparing them to other things - so the "Avengers" film was like lightning in a bottle, and then here comes another, similar film, and it's perceived as not as good in some way, so panic sets in.  Eventually I will see "Fantastic Four" and judge for myself, but I'm not in any great rush. 

Sometimes, after a successful Comic-Con, I might refer to myself as "King of the Nerds" - but I assure you, I'm not serious about it, it's done tongue-in-cheek.  Because when Ernest Cline, the guy who wrote the book "Ready Player One" goes to pick up his Delorean car from George R.R. Martin's house, and then drives down to Los Alamos, where they're excavating a landfill looking for old Atari games, and he decides to stop along the way at both Area 51 and the Very Large Array, I think we all know who the real king is.  Oh, and his driving companion was a life-size E.T. doll - I can't compete with that. 

Starring Zak Penn, Joe Lewandowski, Nolan Bushnell, Manny Gerard, Howard Scott Warshaw, with a cameo from Harrison Ford (last seen in "42")

RATING: 6 out of 10 Reese's Pieces

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