SCREENED AT THE 2006 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: The gamut of FX-laden, CGI-stormed blockbusters paraded out from Hollywood have led to a popular expression that the emotionless eye candy is akin to watching someone else play a video game. Probably not inspired by that statement, Jeremy Mack took it the next logical step Ė to make a film about a guy playing a video game. Geek-inspired documentaries have been growing in popularity over the years; taking easy shots at those already ridiculed or embracing their hobbies as something identifiable in all of us. I donít know how much youíll be able to extract out of 50 mins of some dude playing Missile Command, but when thatís all you have to document Ė itís more of a home movie and not a film.This is a shame because thereís a great deal of history associated with classic hardtop video games. Thatís a documentary unto itself and surely enough as a side trip worth more than just a few passing glances at the titles of yesteryear in an old arcade or warehouse. Bill Carlton fits the profile for obsessed gamers. He tracks down the original units and with his electrician experience is even able to restore some of the more worn down ones. He does such a thing with an Atari Missile Command machine and is determined to bust a 20-year old record of 80 million points.
Those who grew up in the video game evolution remembers that Missile Command was created in an era before you could nail a million on a pinball machine with just one ball. A million points takes time and commitment. (Hell, I think my 145,000 on Pac-Man took close to an hour.) So stop to consider what you have here. Man vs. Machine. Silly OK, but itís his life and world record seekers exist in all manners of activities and fetishes. 80 MILLION points on Missile Command would logically take about two days straight. And if you can stretch the wayback part of your brain a little further, youíll recall that a pause button wasnít always a luxury. At least, not until ColecoVision. The stage is set for something frightenenly time-consuming and then...POOF!
Now that POOF can register as any number of problems with the execution of this exercise. First and foremost is the abject disappointment of the machine resetting itself at will right in the middle of Carltonís marathon. ďThe machine canít handle it,Ē he speaks part as fact and self-congratulation. Itís semi-tragic the first time it happens, but by the second itís become a morbid gotcha like rooting against obnoxious contestants on game shows. Nothing we have witnessed gives us any reason to feel Billís pain. There are brief asides about his preparation for the big event, but whereís the souped-up drama during it? Yeah, we see him play Ė but without the handy take-a-break push, when does he eat? How does he eat? Those canned pears will likely be sliding a few missiles towards his base, so when does he go to the bathroom?Carlton becomes less of a fascinating subject as a result and winds up looking like a fool compared to the original record holder who is interviewed during one scene in an office that looks like heís done pretty well for himself, enjoying his record as a footnote and not a life characterization. At only 52 minutes, High Score does not pronounce itself as a work-in-progress. If director Jeremy Mack had the footage, Iíd imagine he would have used it already. Iím sure Bill Carltonís quest for video game dominance is not over. That will give him and Mack a chance for a do-over to document his quest right and maybe pad out the history (both personal and industrial) to give those watching over their shoulder the urge to put their own quarter on the machine to play next. Thatís the beauty of video games. Thereís always the chance for another quarter. But how many coins are worth chasing a bunch of numbers? Maybe the next documentary can tell us.