Review: In ‘Pixels,’ Attack of the Retro Video Games | News Entertainment

Review: In ‘Pixels,’ Attack of the Retro Video Games

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In ‘Pixels,’ aliens don’t get itPoor Washington is having a bad summer. With 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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. Back in 1982, a time capsule was sent from Earth into outer space, and among the cultural markers contained was footage of people playing the popular video games of the era. 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.

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). 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. 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.

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. 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?

Played at the opening by young look-alike dramatis personae, Sandler is an upcoming champion gamer, Kevin James his nebbish sidekick, Josh Gad a smart, socially incompetent dweeb and Peter Dinklage their snarly nemesis, a brash rival for the gamers’ world championship. 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. His best friend from childhood, Will Cooper (frequent Sandler collaborator Kevin James), is the borderline illiterate president of the United States, making Sam well-positioned for heroism once the alien invasion begins. 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?

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”). 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.

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. 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. The heroes use light-emitting weapons to take on an armada of video game characters, scenes that work better than they should, mainly because the energetic Dinklage and Gad earn as much screen time as Sandler. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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 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. 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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