There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.
Chasing eBay auctions to obtain some toy long out of production, we are living in a time when it’s become easier than ever to furnish our lives with these oases of our past. People want to go back to a simpler time in their lives when all that mattered was getting the Power Glove, or having that exact Transformer action figure, or watching the latest episode of Jem. It’s not that actual piece of merchandise that people are buying: they are trying to regain that sense when things were more carefree. Furthermore, are these collectors performing a vital cultural service by curating these items from our recent history? Questions around these themes should naturally arise when documenting a group of men in their 30s and 40s that collect old arcade games like Centipede and Tapper. Unfortunately, director Jeff Von Ward’s The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time is not interested in exploring any of these deeper elements, in a documentary that is further hampered by technical shortcomings and lack of editorial restraint.
The film is a talking heads documentary that interviews a dozen men about their passion for buying and restoring these older games. The interviews are intercut with wandering historical footage of classic arcades (culled from countless home movies, news reports and 80s movies) and similarly aimless shots of the modern arcades these men have created in their basements and garages. The participants place arcade games into historical context, charting the quick rise to a multibillion dollar industry and even faster fall to obsolescence as arcades shuttered and were replaced by home consoles. Once the men who came of age during those halcyon neon days grew older and got disposable income, they started to hunt down and acquire these large cabinets. Most of those interviewed have at least 30-40 arcade games, with some having as many as 150. Many of them simply don’t have the room to house all of their games (hence the pun in the title), and so keep them in storage units or in large offsite facilities where they sit, collected but unused.
It’s an interesting subculture to examine, especially when you consider not just how much money is required to have that many games, but also the technical know-how needed to maintain the circuitry for all of them. Von Ward doesn’t look at what is actually required to sustain this obsession — and given that almost half of the interview subjects sell off their collections in the course of the film, there’s even more to explore. Despite the fact the film is divided into three acts (Time, Space, Time and Space), there is no central through line connecting any of it. If it’s just to observe this phenomenon and its participants, then why not interview them about why they chose these games to collect as opposed to film memorabilia or other pieces of nostalgia. Or why not interview them after selling off the games and have them reflect about their decades of collecting?
The film is further marred by poor technical work and a lack of editing restraint. For example, instead of showing a few characters dying in their games to represent the end of the format, we’re treated to about 20 different death scenes in an interminable montage. Von Ward interviews the subjects in their own arcades — which means they are poorly lit to fit with the old murky aesthetic. A lot of the text onscreen falls out of title safety, running off the screen. At one point, footage from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake is used to visually represent a metaphor an interviewee is making, but it is clearly bootlegged, with all of the lighting and colors noticeably wrong.
Why would people spend so much of their money, and time, and lives devoted to these machines? What about these objects, over everything else in the world they could collect, spoke to them that made them so passionately committed? And what changed in their lives where they realized they no longer needed them? The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time leads viewers to wonder these questions, but seems utterly uninterested in answering them. It’s the sad irony that Von Ward’s film covering interactive works is completely unable to truly engage its audience.