Pixels (2015) / Comedy-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox, Matt Lintz, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Alfion Crockett, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama
Small role: Dan Aykroyd, Lainie Kazan, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Robert Smigel, Matt Frewer, Nick Swardson
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenplay: Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling (based on the short film by Patrick Jean)
Review published July 25, 2015
I'm not far off from the age that the characters in this film are supposed to portray, and remember very well what it was like to be a kid hanging out in video game arcades in 1982. I shudder to think of how many of my quarters, which weren't so easy to come by back then for a kid with no job, were plunked down into those video game machines that didn't offer much to enhance my life, save for the escape from the humdrum existence of an introverted youth.
Pixels is a movie that should have been meant for me, as a child who remembers every single one of these games all too well from the countless hours I spent in front of them. Sadly, it's not just a missed opportunity to do something clever, it's an utter embarrassment, a novelty flick that thinks pandering to audience nostalgia is enough to make a major motion picture about these days. Remove the fact that we're being reminded about things from our youth and take this story on its own terms and you'll see this eye-popping disaster movie is also one glorious disaster of a movie.
In 1982, Sam Brenner (Sandler, Blended) was one of the best video gamers around his local arcade. But not THE best, as he would eventually lose in a Worldwide Video Arcade Championship competition to the cocky, pimp-voiced, and mulleted Eddie "The Fireblaster" Plant (Dinklage, X-Men: Days of Future Past), who bests him at the wildly popular "Donkey Kong" to steal the victory. NASA had sponsored the event, and used the footage from the competition to send up to space, where it would eventually be found by aliens who take what they find as a declaration of war, and who come to Earth, 'Space Invaders'-style, to take over things using representations found from the video games they viewed from the original video.
Flash forward to today, and Sam's former best friend Will Cooper (James, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2) is now the President of the United States. Along with conspiracy theorist whack-job Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad, The Wedding Ringer) and fresh-from-prison former-nemesis Eddie Plant, Brenner, who now works as a low-level home electronics install guy, has to go to wherever the action is in order to apply his video game skills to thwart the advancing aliens in their various glowing cube forms, and in the process, save the Earth from destruction. He also finds that one of his customers, the hot single mom Violet Van Patten (Monaghan, The Best of Me), is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that is heading the front against the invasion, though they have to rely in the gamers because the military lacks the kind of hand-eye coordination necessary to best these games. What a chance for a geek to impress the hot babes by saving the world!
Pixels gets its inspiration from "Pixels", a 2010 short film, only 2.5 minutes long, from French director Patrick Jean. This full-length vehicle is directed by veteran Chris Columbus (Rent, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), who, much like Sandler, Atari, and Hall & Oates, has his best years behind him, meaning something only for those who are nostalgic for better days.
If there is any fun to be had whatsoever, it comes merely from being able to figure out the various pixelated icons and remembering the games they come from, such as Joust, Frogger, Robotron, Galaga, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Dig Dug, and Wizard of Wor. Not that much is done with them of note -- pointing at the screen when you recognize them is the only joy you're afforded. It's a shamefully lazy effort from screenwriters Tim Herlihy (Little Nicky, Big Daddy) and Timothy Dowling (This Means War, Role Models), who probably penned the bulk of their screenplay on a cocktail napkin while on their fourth or fifth drink in a bar one night, as this is a movie with a lot of comedic slack, and ton of missed opportunities to make something funny happen with one of the more capable supporting casts around. This is a film made by people who could have been casual gamers who spent a little time in the arcades, but not by those who lived and breathed them -- cheat codes for the arcade versions of "Donkey Kong" and a speed-cheat for "Pac Man"? Really?
Anachronisms do abound. For an instant, we see the snickering dog from the Nintendo game, Duck Hunt. Two problems with this: the game wasn't introduced until 1984, and it is a home console game, which means it should not have been recorded on the video that the aliens had seen with footage from the Arcade Championships, so they would not have known to recreate it on Earth. Also introduced in 1984, but somehow appearing in this movie is Max Headroom, the computer game "Tetris", and, for all intents and purposes, the popularity of pop superstar Madonna. "Paperboy", the video game, didn't see arcades until 1985. . Samantha Fox wasn't really a 'thing' beyond a Page 3 girl in England, something young American nerds would know nothing about in 1982 (when she was only 16), and wouldn't until her music video for "Touch Me" dropped in 1986. The Taj Majal is destroyed by the "Breakout"-like game "Arkanoid", which also didn't come out until 1986.
All of this sloppiness can't be an error, as the film is built on nostalgia for a specific year. This is the work of people with willful disregard for their audience. The though must be that anyone who would actually pay money to see an Adam Sandler film in this day and age obviously just doesn't care about what thought might have gone into the motion picture before they started to roll film. There isn't much beyond the premise of "video games from 1982 attack Earth" to Pixels; if they can't even make that singular premise work, they might as well have all of the cast and crew walk on screen and give us, the viewing audience, the middle finger. If that's not enough, let's take a look at the age of the actors who were all friends in 1982 -- Kevin James is 50, Josh Gad is 34, and there is only supposed to be five years separating them in age -- yeesh, casting department, Josh Gad was a one-year-old in 1982.
Adding to the 'WTF' factor of the film, Q*bert suddenly appears -- not as an enemy; he instantly becomes one of the gang. How? Why? The movie never delves deep enough, as Sandler and company think there must be comedy to mine from having an absurd sidekick. And then there's Lady Lisa (Benson, Spring Breakers), a character from the fictional video game called DojoQuest -- did the makers of this film think they didn't have enough appeal for Pixels without having to invent a blonde bombshell samurai warrior to appear in the movie? And why can't she speak, while Q*bert can, especially in one moment when they appear to be the same entity? I'm hoping the pixelated ninjas we also see in the film are supposed to be from this fictional game, because I don't recognize them from anything else pre-1982.
This movie has no defined sense of rules or characters. A scene in which the Pac-Man appears has a quartet of color-coded "ghost" Mini Coopers already at the ready, then power pellets appear around the city for no discernible reason. The human climb the real-life levels of "Donkey Kong", where, all of a sudden, Violet can do flips in the air like the world's greatest gymnast -- she may be fit, but we're never told she is also the world's greatest acrobat! The "Arcaders" as the game-playing saviors of Earth are dubbed, have ready-made jump suits for the task, which is astonishing foresight, given that we have 4'5" Peter Dinklage as one of the crew, as well as Kevin James and his near-300 lb. heft. And what a coincidence that the President of the US, and the best video game players in the world, all hail from the same place!
Despite a certain colorful visual appeal, this special effects-meets-moronic comedy is kick-in-the-groin unfunny, not to mention ugly, and a far cry from its most obvious inspiration in the world of cinema, Ghostbusters. Interestingly, as it stands, the bit involving the video games, of which there aren't nearly as many as you'd expect, remain the best parts, while everything else about this movie is an utter failure. It's yet another Happy Madison film made by man-children actors, playing man-child characters, in which man-children turn out to be the ones who save the day -- finally, a film in which beating a game of "Donkey Kong" might get you the hot girl. Too bad the film couldn't be made by actual nerds, because perhaps then it might have also been smart too, as this movie is definitely made by kids who barely paid attention in school.
Stick with the free-to-watch 2.5-minute version on YouTube, use the two of ten bucks you save per ticket to rent The King of Kong, and use the rest of the money you've saved to find a pizza parlor that still has a working version of one of these games, and be thankful for the 100 minutes of extra life bonus you've been given for an elite play.
©2015 Vince Leo