by Coop Cooper
“Pixels” was a neat idea born of a fantastic 2010 short film by Patrick Jean in which New York City is invaded by classic arcade game characters. Screaming to be made into a feature film, the concept was picked up by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company and developed into a 2015 Sandler summer blockbuster vehicle.
Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a has-been arcade game wizard who was defeated in a 1982 video game tournament by the cocky Eddie ‘Fireblaster’ Plant (Peter Dinklage). Brenner faded into obscurity and became an on-call tech support ‘Nerd’ while his illiterate, uncool friend, Will Cooper (Kevin James), somehow became President of the United States. When an alien intelligence comes across these video games, they create the characters in the games – like Centipede, Space Invaders and even Pac-Man – in real life and send them down to challenge humans to a winner-takes-all contest for Earth. President Cooper employs Brenner to help combat the threat along with the paranoid conspiracy theorist Ludlow (Josh Gad) and old Fireblaster himself who has been rotting away in prison for hacking and embezzlement. Meanwhile, Sandler develops a love-hate relationship with one of the President’s military advisors, Violet (Michelle Monaghan) and a friendship with her game-loving son.
This idea is less original than you might think. There was an entire episode of “Futurama” that utilized the exact same idea and there was also a very cool short animated film made in 1982 called “Arcade Attack” in which fantasy characters from pinball games fight Space Invaders in New York. “Pixels” also takes a lot of inspiration from “Scott Pilgrim Vs the World”, “Tron”, “Independence Day” and possibly even “Wreck-it Ralph”. The set pieces in the film are pretty neat. The heroes of the film have to play by the rules of the video games which set up some creative battles in which they must create some inventive ways to defeat the arcade villains. The Pac-Man sequence in which the heroes used multi-colored Mini Coopers to chase him down and defeat him was predictably the highlight of the film.
There are some interesting celebrity cameos in the film as well. The aliens use old TV transmissions from the 80’s to communicate threats to the humans, using Ronald Reagan, Madonna, and the ‘Where’s the Beef?’ lady as avatars. As for the actors themselves, Gad is the most irritating of the bunch. I’ve yet to like him in anything I’ve seen so I’ll try to avoid his comedies from now on. Kevin James is barely present and doesn’t even get to use his lame ‘Curly from the Three Stooges’ schtick. Sandler looks utterly joyless here, mostly going through the motions in a tired sort of way. He isn’t given any fun lines to work with, but Sandler seems to have checked out a long time ago. Dinklage (Tyrion of “Game of Thrones” fame) is a hoot as the mullet-coifed jerk, Fireblaster, who has an unhealthy obsession with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. The funny part is that his character is modeled after the real-life video game champion Billy Mitchell who has been accused of playing dirty in his attempts to defend his Donkey Kong record. Another pleasant surprise is the video game character ‘Q-Bert’ makes for a cute and unlikely ally for the main characters.
It’s a silly, unfunny film but at least it’s watchable. Seeing classic video games come alive is a guilty pleasure to spot and identify all of the classic characters, especially in the big finale. The special effects are also fun and exciting. It’s just a shame “Harry Potter” director Chris Columbus couldn’t get some decent acting out of most of the cast or put some much needed soul into “Pixels”. As a movie, it’s only average, but it will easily keep kids entertained and might even get them interested in classic arcade games and their history.
I don’t expect a sequel out of “Pixels” but the inclusion of video game-inspired movies will continue. Steven Spielberg himself has signed on to direct the video game film “Ready Player One” adapted from the best-selling novel. Personally, I’d like to see a movie based on the urban legend of the video game “Polybius”. Polybius was a (probably) non-existent arcade cabinet game which was rumored to be a mind control experiment created by the U.S. Government in the 1980’s. Supposedly, the game was released in Portland, Oregon and disappeared quickly from the scene after it caused violent behavior and permanent psychosis in those who played it. Now that is a video game movie I’d pay to see.
2 and ½ out of 5 stars