Gaming History 101

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Movie Review: Pixels

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Authors Note: The circumstances surrounding my having seen this movie early and my review having been written months ago are explained at the end of this review.

Here we go again, another video game movie.  That’s all I seem to think about whenever I see anything like Pixels advertised, so needless to say I went into my initial screening with very low hopes.  Couple that with the fact that the starring roles belong to Adam Sandler and Kevin James, two actors of which I despise most of their work, and you basically have a formula for what I assumed would be a disaster.  Thanks to some lighthearted implementation of some of gaming’s first arcade titles (Pac-Man, Centepede, Donkey Kong, etc.) and the assistance of great supporting cast members Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, this 80s nostalgia flick just became yet another in a sea of big dumb fun summer blockbusters.  If you over think it, this movie falls apart, but if you just go in with zero expectations and want to enjoy two hours, you might be pleasantly surprised.

pixels2The movie is based on a charming short film, also named Pixels, by Patrick Jean (you can watch it here) in which classic arcade games invade New York.  This film builds upon that with Sandler as Sam Brenner being a natural at classic video games to the point that in his pre-teens he makes it to the final round of the 1982 Arcade Championships.  He is accompanied by best friend Will Cooper (James) and weird friend Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad) and ends up losing in the final round to Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (played by Dinklage), who portrays the persona of Billy Mitchell from King of Kong to the point that if I was Mitchell I’d be offended for how this film sullies my character.  This opening sequence is chock full of 80s nostalgia that serves less as an attempt at tugging on the generational heartstrings and more at setting the mood for the early 80s.  Given that this is the Reagan era, Earth decides to shoot a VHS tape of the championships being played into out space, only to have it intercepted by aliens in 2015 who misunderstand it as a declaration of war.  When jarred back to the present, we find Sam as a lowly TV repairman with a few extra pounds on him, Will is the freaking President of the United States, Ludlow is a stereotypical paranoid shut-in, and the world is being invaded by classic arcade games.  The rest of the film is a big budget romp through various scenarios in which our cast (even Dinklage, who returns in the middle) plays out the scenarios of these arcade games to save the world.

pixels1With a movie like this, it’s easy to get bogged down in minutia and forget that this is supposed to be a generational film.  It wants to bridge the gap between the parents of today and allow them to show their kids a time when they were themselves children.  Sure, the use of all of these arcade titles and the clear grab at the Big Bang Theory crowd is hoping to cash in on those of us who these days proudly embrace geek culture, but surely Sony Pictures can’t expect us to be the largest audience since we also tend to be the most critical.  If you’re going to watch this movie and point out inaccuracies, don’t bother going, because there are too many to count and the second you start to try and put it all together it will get frustrating.  Pixels has the charm of other seemingly terrible films like The Wizard and Cloak & Dagger, where it wants to pull from popular culture but in making it mainstream something is lost in translation.  That doesn’t prevent it from being fun but it does make for a movie where you will want to shut your brain off.  That’s fine by me, I had no problem doing it with titles such as Pacific Rim and many others in recent years.  With that concept in mind, it’s fun to watch the sometimes creative and sometimes lazy ways in which the filmmakers (including famed director Chris Columbus) go about turning video games into obstacle courses.

pixels3While I personally hate Sandler – yes, I even disliked his big films such as Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore – and James couldn’t get me to watch a single piece of his work, the two have chemistry as a pair much moreso than previous attempts like Chuck & Larry.  Typically Sandler can’t help but place himself as the everyman with charm, intelligence, and good looks up against a beautiful female goal, however his character Brenner is a bit humbled by the real world in a way that might be familiar to some in their 30s and 40s.  James as the President is off the wall and constantly acts as the storytelling knight in shining armor to explain just about every step of the plot, but his performance is toned down and he’s ironically kept out of the spotlight enough that I let it go.  Gad and Dinklage are the stars of the show, taking their offensively template characters and running with them to the point that I had to laugh out loud with a handful of jokes.  Sure, I could sit around and care too much about what it says about myself or geek culture as a whole, but why bother?

pixels4I know this may sound mildly dismissive and it’s the definite theme for this review, but Pixels is a movie you just go in and ride the wave to see what you might find.  You can pick this movie apart from the hard to believe plot to the far too wrapped up with a bow ending, but that almost feels like you’re trying to dislike it in the process.  Instead, I recommend just checking it out, hopefully with a friend or children in your life, and see if you don’t enjoy the afternoon.  Set the expectations bar low and take solace in the fact that at least the filmmakers stuck to the basic concepts of the games and that they asked Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani to cameo in this lighthearted 80s nostalgia flick.  If every step of this review had you cringing at how Hollywood continues to destroy your childhood – if you’ve ever said, “First Star Wars, then Transformers, now this!” – perhaps you may want to steer clear because it will only feed your anger.  I think that Pixels, especially when you examine its peers in the “video game to movie” genre, is just enough fun and nostalgia to appease both gamers and mainstream audiences.

The reviewer got to see this movie twice before release, once a few months ago and again two weeks ago, neither of these screenings were for the purpose of reviewing the film.  The first instance was for feedback of the audience potential and demographic profiling, of which the author chose not to participate in the feedback portion in the end.  The second screening was to generate word of mouth interest in the film, which is typical of movie promotion about a week or two before release.  In both cases he was selected based on location he lived in and demographics and both screenings were identical in content save for about 20-30 percent of the special effects being unfinished in the early screening.  This review was initially written in May and was updated again last week, however the content does not reflect the now live reviews from other outlets, but that response will be coming soon.  Please note that this response article will not be hosted on Gaming History 101 because it includes vulgar content both in the reviews discussed and the response given.  You can follow that link here to read this response.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 23, 2015 at 11:00 am

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