Pixels Review: Nostalgic Numbskullery

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In ‘Pixels,’ aliens don’t get itWith a novel idea at its center, and some good jokes scattered throughout, “Pixels” is a relief from the self-serious action films that invade movie theaters at this time of year. “Pixels” is the cinematic equivalent of a Buzzfeed listicle entitled “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand.” “Remember Pac-Man?” the movie asks us. “Wasn’t it awesome?” But a movie has to be something more than a parade of nostalgia-inducing images.Before “Pixels” became the latest critically-derided movie on Adam Sandler’s filmography, it was something very different: a two-and-a-half minute short with a clever concept and impressive execution.“Pixels,” the action/comedy in which Adam Sandler leads a team of former arcade-game champions to save the world from an invasion of 1980s video-game characters, wants badly to be “Ghostbusters.” Except it doesn’t want to be “Ghostbusters” quite badly enough to make much of an effort, and the end result is an inexpensive-looking, cheerfully lazy semi-adventure.

When intergalactic aliens receive a time capsule launched into outer space by NASA, they interpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war.This is an official order handed down by President Cooper (Kevin James) during an alien invasion that finds Earth being attacked by extraterrestrial life in the form of 1980s arcade games.

There’s nothing coy about the movie’s marketing, from posters of a monolithic Pac-Man gobbling up the Golden Gate to trailers with Adam Sandler taking on an arcade’s worth of vintage video games come to life. And Sandler is not Bill Murray, to put it mildly. (Now that I think of it: Both Sandler and Murray could be described as performers in similar terms — effortless, deadpan, a trademark persona. In “Pixels,” directed by Chris Columbus, the 40-something self-described losers who spent too much time at the arcade are the ones who will inherit the Earth — led by their benevolent leader, Adam Sandler, of course.

It’s just that Murray’s apparent lack of effort — or, perhaps, the amount of effort he puts into looking like he isn’t trying, or maybe just his naturally funny charisma — adds up to something compelling. This disappointing comedy falls apart before it begins because no one would behave the way its characters do, and their ridiculous choices drive the action.

Pac-Man gobbles up all the subway stops along the 6 Train and Donkey Kong throws barrels from a skyscraper; Tetris pieces fill in the spaces on stepped buildings, destroying levels at a time, and Pong balls transform the Brooklyn Bridge into a pile of pixels. Sandler’s regular-dude-who-happened-to-wander-onto-a-film-set shtick is less so.) Anyway, here we have Sandler bringing his usual level of energy to the role of Sam Brenner, a regular guy and home-video installer who happens to be best friends with the president of the United States (Kevin James). President, Will Cooper, played by Kevin James – you read that right — calls on a childhood friend, one Sam Brenner, played by Sandler, who was a video game phenom in the 1980s to rescue the country from the disaster of an extraterrestrial onslaught.

Few things strike greater fear in the heart of a moviegoer than the logo of Happy Madison, Sandler’s production company that unleashed such dogs as “Blended,” “Here Comes the Boom” and “Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser.” The action comedy “Pixels” fares slightly better, thanks to the clever premise of a 2010 short by Patrick Jean, which inspired this film. Aside from bursts of 8-bit quaintness rendered in cutting-edge 3-D, there’s little else here that’s clever or lively enough to hold your attention. The supporting cast is led by Michelle Monaghan as Lieutenant Violet van Patten, a weapons developer and single-mom romantic involvement for Sandler; Josh Gad as conspiracy theorist and all-around oddball Ludlow Lamonsoff; and Peter Dinklage as Eddie Plant, Brenner’s former video game-playing nemesis, a guy who calls himself the “Fire Blaster” and will stop at nothing to come out on top in any kind of competition.

To fight and destroy them, Brenner is joined by the president, old gaming pal Ludlow (Josh Gad), old gaming nemesis Eddie (Peter Dinklage) and requisite Sole Woman In The Movie With More Than Three Lines, Lt. In a surprisingly late first foray into high-concept action-comedy, Sandler plays Sam Brenner, whose gift for gaming as a teen somehow never translated into big things. But while this severely flawed enterprise is going for childlike, what it ends up seeming is childish, as if its principals were youngsters playing dress-up. The only ones who can combat this invasion are the arcaders — Sam, Ludlow and former nemesis Firecracker (Peter Dinklage), sprung from the clink for the occasion. “Pixels” is a blast of energetic fun, though it doesn’t attempt to stray outside the lines or reflect on its “Godzilla”-style formula.

Part of the problem is that the technical gimmick that made the short film work so well begged for considerable fleshing out, as opposed to just an increase in the running time, as it was being converted into a full-length narrative. While Dinklage shows his comic side with a wild mullet and bizarre accent, Gad is the real standout, giving an effervescently full-bodied performance as the paranoid, passionate Ludlow. It’s very funny, for example, that the aliens choose to talk to earthlings using images we’d understand – and so we get computer-altered images of 1980s personalities issuing the aliens’ threats. One of those Studios was Sony Pictures, and it was offering something none of the others were: Adam Sandler. “I know that since then he’s made a few movies that were questionable,” Jean said over the phone from California where he’s been living for the past four years. “But at that moment, five years ago, he had a good reputation. Turns out these space invaders watched a videotape of Sam and other championship gamers that was included in a NASA probe’s cultural sampler and mistook it for a challenge.

But the third act nearly abandons the emphasis on comedy and becomes an action vehicle highlighted by the extravagant – and overdone – special effects. And why would American boys, in 1982, be expressing their lust for Samantha Fox, when she was completely unknown until 1983, and then only in Britain?

But since Sandler seemed so genuinely excited about the movie, Sony seemed like the best choice if Jean ever wanted to see an adaptation of his movie on the big screen. With a broadly humorous, PG-13 tone, it feels like a kids film, but niche references to ’80s ephemera like “Fantasy Island,” and Max Headroom will hit only with the Gen-Xers in the audience. And it worked. “Pixels” opens this weekend, albeit with a very different feel from the short (although the fantastic Tetris set piece is copied pretty much frame for frame). There’s quite a bit of “back in my day” grumbling and arguing that arcade games are inherently better than today’s video games, a message that feels stuffy and backward. Instead of finding new ways to be inventive, the screenwriters rely on action-movie tropes, and director Chris Columbus and the actors are left to try to make these scenes interesting.

He launches a kids’ reading programme to boost his sagging approval ratings, but he can’t pronounce the multi-syllabic words in a children’s book. Having been recently ditched by her husband (for a 19-year-old named Sinnamon), she’s unreasonably susceptible to Sam’s “charms,” even though she’s his better in every way: looks, smarts, maturity, fight moves. Ultimately, these underscripted characters are no Ghostbusters, particularly as Columbus chucks the balance between visual oooh and visual overkill in the late going. James is a talented comic performer, but he is so woefully miscast here, he might as well be wearing a DON’T TAKE ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWS SERIOUSLY sign. Poor Ashley Benson plays a literal trophy who doesn’t have a single line, while Michelle Monaghan is forced into a sexy scientist stereotype far below her talents.

Jean hoped that the feature would be an action comedy for the whole family, along the lines of “Ghostbusters” or “The Last Starfighter” — “those movies that made you feel good in the ’80s and that we kind of lost now,” he said. Forget the elite military and special services — Will calls up Sam, the one-time video game championship runner-up, hoping he might spot some arcade-inspired pattern in the airborne attack. Despite these unfortunate shortcomings, “Pixels” has its funny and fresh moments, thanks in large part to the supporting comic actors and inventive special effects. Traditionally, movies have the president resemble the sitting president, but “Pixels” takes place in a post-Obama near future, with Kevin James as an overweight president from the Northeast, of a similar look and vintage as Chris Christie but without the latter’s bluster.

An anemic theme about Sam’s lack of confidence doesn’t help, and neither does another, wistfully lamenting how the brainteasing patterns and skill-honing of classic games have given way to the mindless violence and too-easy reset buttons of today. Much of the film was shot at night, on a schedule that had everyone working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to Jean, and Sandler “was there every day working hard.” “Personally, I loved the work that has been done on the feature in terms of visual effects,” he said. “I think [the movie] is not perfect, but I think it has a heart and I like it. When she rejects him but ends up driving behind him on the street, he declares to no one: “She went from zero to psycho in 3.4 seconds.” Because women are crazy, get it?! Sandler doesn’t appear to be trying terribly hard, and Gad gets sucked into that humor vacuum, going after laughs with a palpable desperation and adopting Sandler’s signature move of yelling for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, the normally funny Jane Krakowski is utterly wasted as an irrationally jealous first lady, relegated to a scene in which her husband is afraid to admit that another woman is pretty.

The sight of Pac-Man gliding through the city street, gobbling up everything in its path, is amusing in the moment, but without any real sense of threat, the action can’t really hold interest for an entire long sequence. Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage, sporting a mullet, fares no better, with the humor of his one-dimensional character relying on his egotism and attempts to have a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart.

An Emmy-nominated comedy actress, she’s given few lines here — none funny — and is left with nothing to do but gaze adoringly at the goofy president.

Here you can write a commentary on the recording "Pixels Review: Nostalgic Numbskullery".

* Required fields
All the reviews are moderated.
Our partners
Follow us
Contact us
Our contacts

About this site