The Time Henry Thomas Buried Atari, Then Dug It Back Out

One of the more interesting aspects of our current Movie of the Month, the violent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger, is that it was in part designed to rescue Atari from financial ruin. After the video game crash of 1983 that nearly put Atari out of business for good, the ailing company hoped a movie tie-in deal might help boost its popularity (and promote video game culture in general) by joining the ranks of popular films like Tron & WarGames. Hitching its wagon to the in-development Cloak & Dagger project, which was eventually named after a real-life Atari 2600 cartridge that never made it to market, was a strange choice for a couple of reasons. On a big-picture level, Cloak & Dagger functions as alarmist propaganda about the dangers of video games & fantasy roleplay, so its dual role as an advertisement for a specific Atari game seems a little self-defeating. On a smaller, more specific level, the film’s pint-sized lead Henry Thomas seemed like an odd choice for a video game poster boy, seeing as how he was already closely associated with the industry’s 1983 downfall. It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor, best known for his role as Elliott in E.T., with video games again so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the 1983 industry crash – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. The game was such a flop that it inspired an urban legend about its unsold stock being buried in a New Mexico landfill—hundreds of thousands of deadstock cartridges with Henry Thomas’s face on the cover discarded underground. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie meant to rescue the industry.

The most fascinating thing about the E.T. video game legend is that’s it’s (at least partially) true. The 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over is especially illuminating on the subject, tracking the search for and excavation of the E.T. landfill meant to prove its existence. In a way, it’s a total success. Excavation crews uncover a landfill packed with thousands of unsold Atari games in Alamogordo NM, near where scientists first tested the nuclear bomb. An entirely different kind of bomb, E.T.: “the worst video game of all time,” was included among those buried titles, but it did not comprise as much of the loot as the urban legend may have suggested. Only 10% of the video game cartridges recovered in that New Mexico landfill featured Henry Thomas’s face; buried along with E.T.: The Video Game were much better-respected titles like Yars’ Revenge, Pac-Man, and Centipede. Blaming the massive cartridge burial and, by extension, the entire video game crash of ’83 on the E.T. game just makes for a better story, whether or not the infamous flop deserved the mockery. Much of Atari: Game Over functions like rehabilitative PR for the E.T. game in that way. It explains how the game was rushed to market in just five weeks’ time to capitalize on the Christmas season, so that its very existence is kind of a computer programming miracle for the game’s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw. Although its frustrating gameplay that it lands its avatar, an unrecognizably pixelated E.T., in holes from which he can’t escape is explained to be far from the worst gameplay to grace the Atari console; it only seemed that way it compares to the quality of the movie. Interviews with Spielberg also confirm that the director himself approved the game before it hit the market, so it seems unfair that was effectively driven out of the video game business after E.T.’s failure, despite having designed more beloved games like Yars’ Revenge and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in. Most damningly (but perhaps least surprisingly), industry experts also explain how the video game crash of ’83 was far from E.T.’s fault; the game’s failure was just the convenient scapegoat for much larger financial issues. The whole film serves as a pretty convincing argument for why Henry Thomas shouldn’t be barred from video game adaptations after the E.T. game’s failure, even if the optics are initially questionable.

As useful as I found Atari: Game Over in illustrating exactly what happened with the E.T. video game landfill, I can’t exactly recommend it as a well-made documentary. The only feature film produced for X-Box’s video content wing X-Box Originals, this very slight 66min doc feels like it has a target audience of 14-year-old boys and not that much wider. Director Zak Penn brings a decent pedigree to the project, as a writer for many major Hollywood comic book adaptations & one-time collaboration with Werner Herzog on The Incident at Loch Ness, but he mostly crafts this documentary like the video game equivalent of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Since the actual excavation of the Atari landfill can’t comprise an entire feature’s runtime on its own, the film busies itself crosscutting between the dig & an oral history of the early days of Atari that led to the E.T. debacle. There’s a lot of useful insight to be pulled from these interviews, but they just as often feel like a boys’ club glory days nostalgia trip – boosting the programmers’ own nerdy legacy instead of maintaining properly distanced, documentarian honesty. Ready Player One novelist Ernest Cline is a perfect mascot for how this unexamined, nerdy pop-culture worship comes across in its worst moments. He injects himself into the narrative of the landscape excavation it the cringiest of ways, staging a road trip to witness the dig by driving in a replica Back to the Future DeLorean he picks up form Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, accompanied by a life-size E.T. replica in the passenger seat. The self-described “screenwriter, novelist, and gentlemen adventurer” provides some useful context about how E.T.’s gameplay helped inspired the video game “Easter Egg” trope that guided the plot of Ready Player One, but mostly he just serves as the Guy Fieri of the piece—representing both its TV special qualities & its unwillingness to engage with pop culture nerdery as anything but The Greatest Thing Ever.

Regardless of Game Over’s quality as documentary filmmaking, the movie is extremely useful in illustrating both how the unsold E.T. cartridges featuring Henry Thomas’s face aren’t entirely responsible for the 1983 video game crash and how the urban legend surrounding them was so strong that casting him in Cloak & Dagger was risky anyway. As supplementary material, the film is more an act of reputation rehabilitation for the E.T. game & its creator than it is a revelation of anything directly related to Cloak & Dagger. Still, it’s an illustrative history of the cultural climate Cloak & Dagger was released in, a time when the future of video games as a lucrative industry did not seem as set in stone as it does now. It has no trouble finding nerds who were on the ground floor for those troublesome early days to reminisce about the era as if they were Guy Fieri singing the praises of Donkey Sauce.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller, Mazes & Monsters.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “The Time Henry Thomas Buried Atari, Then Dug It Back Out

  1. Pingback: Dabney Coleman vs. Video Games | Swampflix

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