‘Pixels’: Suffer through Sandler, and enjoy the cool effects

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Pixels’: A movie needs more than nostalgia to win over audiences.

“Pixels,” a movie about video game champions battling real-life versions of famous characters, stars Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage and opens on July 24. In the film, aliens attack Earth and are inspired in doing so by ’80s video game characters like Q*bert and Pac-Man, and the president (Kevin James) decides that the people most equipped to deal with this problem are those who have spent hours fighting the characters onscreen.

Hiding Adam Sandler’s participation on the poster of the film is understandable, but the studio should have taken the logical next step and made the entire film disappear, or at least have shot it off into space like the clips of 1982 pop-culture highlights which, in “Pixels,” are seen by aliens. PG This sci-fi comedy of invading outer-space arcade gamers was filmed last summer on our major downtown streets, adding to already considerable traffic jams. Sandler’s recent work includes the little-seen 2014 movie “The Cobbler” and the 2014 movies “Top Five” and “Blended,” while Dinklage stars as court plotter Tyrion Lannister on the HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The movie, which banks on the nostalgia audience members would feel when seeing a large version of a video game character like Donkey Kong, continues the trend of Hollywood betting big on audiences wanting to be reminded of entertainment experiences they’ve already had. Doubtfire” and the first two Harry Potter films, things are so much better. “Pixels” was inspired by an eye-popping short of the same title that portrayed New York being invaded by classic 8-bit arcade characters from outer space.

This clever piece about 8-bit arcade icons destroying New York City enjoys a $110 million upgrade — a big chunk of which goes to star Adam Sandler, whose listless, disconnected demeanor for once fits the character he’s playing. It’s sporting of them to offer us a best three-out-of five contest for galactic domination so that any record of the struggle would look a lot like a formula blockbuster with different wacky villains for each battle. This summer saw the release of “Terminator Genisys,” the newest film and a reboot of the classic science fiction film series, while this December will see the release of a new “Star Wars” film, complete with original series stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. Sandler, whose team produced the film, plays an underachieving former teen video game champ whose equally dim best friend, played by Kevin James, grows up to be the president.

Accompanied by dumpy childhood friend Will and conspiracy theorist dweeb Ludlow, Sam gets to show off his joystick-juggling, button-pressing, ball-rolling talents at the Worldwide Video Arcade Championship. One reviewer called the film’s storyline “moronic,” while another found the film’s humor to “seldom hit the mark” and one critic wrote that the film has “soul-sucking emptiness… lazy.” In addition, some feel the pull of nostalgia isn’t enough for audience members to not notice when an idea for a film is similar to a very recent one. Sandler teams with a hyperactive Josh Gad and a pixel-chewing Peter Dinklage as middle-aged versions of geeks who, in the early 1980s, excelled at playing video games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. Worse, this defeat gets forever immortalized in a video package launched in a NASA probe to showcase American culture to potential alien civilizations.

But when an alien race misinterprets their old-school amusements as a real-time intergalactic threat, and starts attacking Earth with monstrous versions of these pixellated pals, then who you gonna call? The aliens have misinterpreted the 1980s video game footage as a declaration of war, and soon Earth is engaged by enemies found in “Donkey Kong,” “Pac-Man,” “Robotron,” “Frogger” and dozens more. More and more, he’s adapting his goofball persona to match his late-40s age, portraying once-promising teens who become adult losers hoping to recapture some of their youthful glory.

Such dull contrivances pile up like Tetris tiles in Pixels, which also adds Michelle Monaghan as the token female invader battler and obligatory Sandler love interest. It’s certainly easier to buy him as a slouching, zinger-dispensing burnout than as a ladies man (“That’s My Boy”) or devoted father figure (“Blended”).

Dinklage, for reasons best known to him, seems to be trying to sound like a black guy, but then again, this is the kind of anything-goes affair where a mad four-star officer (Brian Cox) appears to belong to a different branch of the military every time we see him — and the genius scientist instantly figures out how to defeat the aliens with what look like Super Soakers wrapped in tinfoil on the way to the set. But “Pixels” is less Sandler’s film than it is director Chris Columbus’ (of the first “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” flicks), who relies on his strength wrangling inventive visuals. The special effects are good — a car chase with a giant-sized Pac-Man is well done — and Torontonians will have fun playing Spot the Landmark, even though our city is once again subbing for New York.

And yet I haven’t even told you about the hubba-hubba, see-the-pretty-lady slavering of the boys, the soundtrack’s cement-head rock (Loverboy, “We Will Rock You”) and dire one-liners like, “Have you been playing Space Invaders? Sandler has found it vastly profitable to remain a mental middle-schooler into middle age, but, crucially, he’s stuck in a 1982 kid time capsule: His jokes are as fresh as the antique store. And the disjointed timeline grows annoying: 1970s rock songs are used to imply 1982 new wave, and the 1982 space probe includes Max Headroom and Madonna, who didn’t arrive until a few years later. There’s even a dozen good jokes for the female supporting character, a weapons expert played by Michelle Monaghan, fresh off last summer’s impressive dramatic turn in HBO’s “True Detective.” The battle scenes are joyfully goofy, with familiar 8-bit figures from the past chewing fire trucks apart and throwing endless supplies of barrels at Earthlings.

There’s a spirit of carefree nihilism in their pixelated destruction, and since their troops are play-pretend creatures, blasting them doesn’t carry the slightest smidge of real revenge. The process also darkens the colorful palette. ▪ “Pac-Man”: In the movie, a giant yellow ball goes on a chomping spree through the streets of New York as the heroes do battle in Mini Coopers. Columbus filmed the chase sequence over 31/2 weeks by having the actors followed by a yellow golf cart, which was later replaced with a computer-generated Pac-Man. ▪ “Centipede”: “I wanted ‘Centipede’ to be a surrealistic three-dimensional moment,” said Columbus. “For me, I pushed it into ‘Yellow Submarine’ territory where, in the middle of that scene, it just totally turns psychedelic. You shouldn’t do any mind-altering drugs before you watch that particular sequence of the film.” ▪ “Donkey Kong”: “The ‘Donkey Kong’ sequence is one that we could have done 90 percent CGI, but we literally built the game from scratch,” said Columbus. “We built the platforms. When you walked into that soundstage, it was mind blowing to see actors 100 feet in the air on harnesses running around from barrels that we later added.

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