Sci-fi action shlock that prostitutes retro gaming into oblivion.
The beautiful thing about old-school arcade games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede is that they take passion, endurance and dedication to master. Few people on this earth are equipped with the skills to be the best at these electronic mental marathons, and these special few are basically freaks of nature (watch Seth Gordon’s modern classic The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters to fully understand their freakiness). Retro arcade gaming is an amazing, fascinating, largely undiscovered American subculture that’s deserved to be the subject of a big-budget, big-screen vehicle for a long time. (No, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t count; that movie’s about the games, not the gamers.)
Pixels, a movie by Chris Columbus and a product of Adam Sandler‘s Happy Madison Productions empire, is meant to be about retro gamers, but isn’t about anything at all. This movie makes no sense, has no message, isn’t funny and harbors what is easily the worst performance of Peter Dinklage‘s career. It’s a crying shame, especially for a lifelong gamer like myself, though the movie is extraordinarily impressive in one, very unexpected facet of its presentation, which I’ll save for later.
The plot is Independence Day, except woefully over-simplified and with classic video game characters playing the aliens. In a flashback to 1982 (when video arcades still existed), we meet our heroes. Sam Brenner is an good-natured arcade wizard, but he loses a NASA-sponsored gaming tournament to Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant, a cocky, mullet-rocking little person who smokes him at Donkey Kong. Sam’s best buddy, Will, is loyal to the end, though, and assures Sam that he’s destined for bigger things. As a consolation prize, they make a new friend at the arcade, a Napoleon Dynamite-like creature named Ludlow. This opening sequence has a great, vintage look and starts the movie on the right foot, though it’s all downhill from there.
Jump ahead to present day, and aliens that inexplicably look and behave exactly like the characters in the games Sam mastered as a kid have declared war on earth and threaten to blow our blue planet to smithereens. (Well, not exactly “smithereens”; everything the aliens touch gets “pixelated,” falling apart into neon-bright cubes of light.) Naturally (predictably), adult Sam (Sandler), Will (Kevin James), Eddie (Dinklage) and Ludlow (Josh Gad) are the only ones with enough gamer skill to save the day. (Oddly enough, Will grew up to be the President of the United States, which fast-tracked his friends to the front of the military earth-defense line.)
Nonsense incoming: When a giant, alien Pac-Man starts tearing apart New York City, he and his friends jump into color-coded cars, chasing Pac-Man through the streets and alleys as if they were the evil ghosts from the game. Sam was good at arcade games. How in the world, then, is he suddenly also a professional driver? Earlier in the movie, he’s holding a laser gun, shooting “centipedes” out of the night sky in London. I could have sworn he was a master of buttons and joysticks, not a badass gunman with perfect aim. It’s moronic. This movie isn’t about video games or gamers; it’s generic, trashy, sci-fi action shlock that prostitutes retro gaming and uses it as arbitrary window dressing. Blech.
Across the board, the cast is on their D-game. Sandler’s been playing the same, sleepy-Seth-Rogen character for the past several years, and he doesn’t break that streak here (same goes for Kevin James and his meathead routine). Michelle Monaghan plays Sandler’s love interest, and her role as a sexy government official is as demeaning and stereotypical as you’d imagine. Gad alternates between shrieking and sulking as the mentally unstable Ludlow, but his performance is more off-putting than funny.
Like I said, Dinklage is a mess: He puts on a mind-numbing accent that sounds like Barry White trying to talk like a “totally tubular” ’80s kid, and his comedic timing is near nonexistent. He says nasty things, like demanding a three-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in the Lincoln Bedroom, and Columbus lingers on him forever, as if he’s positive the audience is erupting in laughter at the absurdity of it all. Instead: crickets. Not one laugh-worthy line. Not one. It’s painful to see such a great actor fail so miserably.
Family-friendly action adventures like this typically leave you with some kind of moral or encouraging message. For the life of me, I don’t know what Pixels is trying to say. All of its heroes have dreams, and at the end of the story, all those dreams come true. But they learn nothing about themselves along the way. It’s a head-scratcher trying to figure out the point of it all. You’d think, maybe, that the message would be about retro games and how, even amongst today’s more complex, technologically advanced games, they still hold up as essential gaming experiences. Nope. Spoiler alert: Sam saves the world by ditching his old-school gaming philosophies and adopting a modern gaming approach. I honestly don’t understand most of this movie.
I saved the good news for last, though it’ll only apply to those willing to shell out extra dough for a movie ticket. Pixels has some of the best 3-D glasses implementation I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Aside from a few exceptions (Pixar movies, Coraline, Avatar), I detest putting on those damn 3-D glasses, but this movie blew me away: the colors were vibrant; people’s noses looked closer to us than their ears; shots of large crowds had cavernous depth. The more obvious visual effects—like the aliens exploding into a zillion “pixels”—looked great too, but it was the subtle stuff that dropped my jaw. I really, really didn’t like this movie, but at least it’s a fun tech demonstration.