Pixels’ is somehow even worse than I thought it could be

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Pixels’ never comes into focus as a real picture.

As kids in the 1980s, Sam Brenner, Will Cooper, Ludlow Lamonsoff, and Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant saved the world thousands of times – at 25 cents a game, in the video arcades. Some movies are so interminable that it seems they might never end, while others are assembled with such indifference that you are essentially left waiting for them to start. “Pixels” somehow manages both.

Others are worth the price of a matinee, and still others are best viewed as the back half of a drive-in double feature. “Pixels” falls into that final category, harmless, disposable and seemingly made for grown-up men who remember with fondness their days in 1980s video arcades where high scores, an unending supply of quarters and such games as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders were all the entertainment they needed. Case in point: “Pixels.” Sandler’s generally idiotic ode to 1980s video games is a hugely expensive proposition, costing in excess of $100 million. Ostensibly a hybrid of an Adam Sandler lovable schlub vehicle with a kids’ picture nostalgia piece, “Pixels” imagines that an alien invasion takes place in the form of vintage video game characters attacking major metropolises around the world. The city was destroyed on television Wednesday night in Syfy’s “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!,” and it takes a beating again in theaters with Friday’s release of “Pixels,” in which it is attacked by giant versions of 1980s video-game characters. When the action shifts to the present, we learn that Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) is now working as a Nerd from the Nerd Brigade — think Geek Squad — while dorky Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) is a conspiracy theorist living with his grandma.

Expect some of those many presidential candidates to begin dropping out of the race this weekend. “Pixels” is a special-effects eyeful burdened by the fact that it is also yet another film in which Adam Sandler plays a man-child who somehow turns the head of an attractive woman. Gone are the actual characters he once created, the tortured Robbie Hart of “The Wedding Singer,” even the titular guys like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” as well as the semi-dramatic work in which he’s occasionally dabbled. In “Pixels,” Sandler has barely tried to cobble together a character, playing Sam Brenner, a guy who doesn’t have much going on except the ability to insult anyone who crosses him.

His old skills prove useful when extraterrestrials who misunderstood a message sent into space during Ronald Reagan’s administration attack Earth with giant Pac-Men, Centipedes and such. He’s a middle-aged mobile computer tech who was once center stage, playing in the Donkey Kong World Championships as a kid, only to fall short of the grand prize to the self-proclaimed Fire Blaster, a failing that still haunts him today. His childhood best friend (James) is now the president, and when the alien invasion breaks out, the two realize that it will be vintage gamers who can save the day.

Josh Gad, Kevin James and — if you can’t get a “Game of Thrones” actor these days, don’t bother making your movie — Peter Dinklage play his comrades in arms. Based on a French short video by Patrick Jean, Pixels tugs at the nostalgia strings of those who are old enough to have experienced the glory of arcade games, but the movie would be lost on the younger generation. The special effects are pretty cool, but the film is working nostalgia already thoroughly mined in movies (including the video-game-themed “Wreck-It Ralph”) and television (“The Goldbergs” and such).

Before, I predicted this film was going to be terrible, as Adam Sandler has had a bad spate of cringe movies recently (except Hotel Transylvania) with his vulgar comedy that did not age well over the years. The president, not the sharpest tool in the situation room, is married — Jane Krakowski plays the first lady but is given almost nothing to do — but Mr. Directed by Chris Columbus — writer of “The Goonies” and “Gremlins” and director of “Home Alone” and the first two “Harry Potter” pictures — the film takes its spectacular premise and then treats it flatly, with no sense of wonder.

When the story shifts to New York for the climactic battle, the unlikely saviors might call to mind the “Ghostbusters” gang — another 1980s reference — and make you wish the film had the wry freshness the original installment of that franchise did. Surprisingly, his wise-cracks and comedic sequences were in much better taste than before, clearly wrangled by the writing team and the director, who gave the slapstick comedy reigns to snowman star Josh Gad. The producers and directors threw all their energy into the comedy and action of Pixels, which had me in stitches, but left plot holes the size of Space Invader-shaped craters along the way, leaving the audience with big question marks on their faces.

There were enough cringe-moments to make you question the sanity of the writers and actors, but at least there were enough laughs to drown out the lack of logic. It’s not even as entertaining or original as 2012’s animated “Wreck-It Ralph.” That animated movie paid tribute to famous characters, games, voices and styles while this is a celebration of the arcade experience. In films like this the women characters are mainly there as eye candy (which is obviously true for Ashley Benson as Lady Lisa), but I was impressed by Michelle Monaghan, who plays Lieutenant Colonel Violet, a soon-to-be-divorced mother that develops the weapons used against the invaders.

This could have been a decent summer romp for children of all ages, but it isn’t, and the biggest reason is Sandler himself, who can barely pull himself away from hate-flirting with Lt. Unofficially the film also borrows some of its character dynamics from Seth Gordon’s 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” about what became of arcade game champions later in life. “Pixels” is all the more frustrating for the few stray interesting ideas that are left hanging because they would require thinking and work to draw them out. Her timing with Adam Sandler was on point, her character was well fleshed out and they even subtly pointed out the sexism experienced by women in male-dominated environments such as the military. Exactly how a stock Kevin James character became president isn’t really explained, and the movie does amusingly treat it kind of just like any other job. The film’s best sequence is one in which the video game “Centipede” plays out across the sky over London’s Hyde Park, a psychedelic-tinged bit of weirdness that has an energy totally lacking elsewhere. (Maybe it’s the game’s mushrooms.) The “Pac-Man” sequence that follows shortly afterward, in which small cars race through New York City streets, feels like a low point, shoehorning in a chase and overlong.

It is rarely a good idea to think too closely on the logistics of something like “Pixels,” but how is it that the team of nerdy middle-aged video game players are also all expert drivers of real cars in real life? It’s steeped in nostalgia, courtesy of the games along with the Reagan-era cultural mainstays who are manipulated by aliens to deliver threats, and celebrates another batch of unlikely saviors who have become the go-to heroes for our times. It is painfully formulaic every step of the way, the romance between Sandler and Violet is unpleasantly obligatory, and while it has some interesting visuals and bits and pieces of ’80s pop-culture references that are clever, the whole concept of who these aliens are is never in any way explored.

Children accustomed to sophisticated first-person games may find it quaint or anachronistic, while their parents will happily listen to Olaf from “Frozen” rock out to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Two female characters — the mother of Josh Gad’s character and the wife of Brian Cox’s warmonger admiral — are just disembodied voices nagging from somewhere offscreen. Worse, there are casual sexist and homophobic sentiments of the male teenage adolescent sort that cannot be justified by making Monaghan a responsible military professional.

The film stood to be some kind of summation of the long-standing ’80s fixation in Sandler movies, from “The Wedding Singer” to “That’s My Boy,” but no one involved was engaged enough to make that so. Video games have been called a waste of time by plenty of adults, but “Pixels” is more than that, because it blows its actual potential, making one wish for a reset button, or in lieu of that, that the aliens might actually win.

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