Film crew to dig up New Mexico landfill in search of Atari's 'E.T.' cartridges

"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (video game).

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:18 PM ET

Dead aliens, the New Mexico desert and a mystery that’s spanned more than three decades. Sounds like something out of a movie.

And soon it will be. This Saturday, documentary filmmakers and potentially thousands of curious onlookers will descend on the small New Mexico city of Alamogordo to unravel one of the most enduring enigmas in video game history: Are there actually millions of unsold E.T. the Extra Terrestrial game cartridges buried in a landfill?

“At first I remember thinking, ‘That’s silly, that can’t possibly be true,’ ” says Hollywood screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk), who is directing the hour-long documentary, with the working title Atari: Game Over.

“I didn’t realize that this wasn’t just some crazy, made-up, weird story.”

For the uninitiated, the legend goes something like this: In late 1982, Atari released a video game based on the blockbuster Steven Spielberg movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, producing five million copies for the then-popular Atari 2600 system.

Although it was a hot property that Christmas and ultimately sold 1.5 million copies, the game fell gravely short of Atari’s expectations, and was savaged by critics as being frustrating and tedious.

The following September, stuck with as many as 3.5 million unsold copies of the game, Atari allegedly filled semi-trailer trucks with cartridges, then crushed and buried them in the Alamogordo landfill before topping it with a concrete slab to prevent pilfering.

For decades the city refused to allow anyone permission to dig up the dump, but last year

Ottawa-based Fuel Entertainment successfully negotiated access to the landfill for an eventual excavation. A project to document the dig was spearheaded by Microsoft’s newly formed Xbox Entertainment Studios, working with Fuel and L.A.-based production company Lightbox Entertainment, and Lightbox founders Jonathan and Simon Chinn approached Penn, an avid gamer, to direct.

And now, the aliens are about to be exhumed. Or are they? Even though the failure of the E.T. game was one of the tipping points in the home video game crash of the mid-’80s, no one seems to have irrefutable evidence that the landfill burial actually took place.

“Maybe there will be hundreds of thousands of E.T. games sitting there, and maybe there won’t be,” says Penn. “No matter what everybody tells me, until I see the evidence, there’s no proof that this happened.”

Jonathan Chinn, an Emmy winner for his documentary series American High, says the Atari graveyard legend is “very Twilight Zone. When you start to get into this story and start to do the research and speak to the characters and deal with the city of Alamogordo and deal with the state of New Mexico... it’s just all too bizarre.”

With Xbox Entertainment Studios’ involvement – the documentary will be the first in a series on the history of the digital revolution, likely distributed through Microsoft’s Xbox Live service – the excavation has attracted international intention.

The filmmakers say they’re not sure how many video game fans will show up in Alamogordo to witness the dig, but they’re getting an inkling it could be a lot.

“Hopefully there isn’t a big mosh pit of people breaking the police caution tape to get their handful of concrete and crushed up cartridges,” jokes Chinn.

Adds Penn: “I think the ultimate awesome ending for this movie would be if we dug all this up, and then someone, preferably Atari, came in, loaded it all up into trucks and drove it away in the middle of the night and buried it someplace else.”


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