Film review: Pixels

Suffice it to say Hollywood’s track record of creating video game-related movies is less than stellar, but video games are simply too popular to ignore so they keep trying again every few years.  Normally they pick a video game and make some generic action piece with extremely loose connections to the source material, but this time they decided to build upon a French semi-animated short film about about a plethora of classic arcade games coming to life to attack New York City.  They even kept the name Pixels.

On paper, Pixels seemed like it had potential.  The short film was a neat concept, the pixelated animation style looked cool, and 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph proved decisively that, in the right hands, a standalone story surrounded by video game cameos can be awesome.  Unfortunately the hands they put Pixels in were Adam Sandler‘s, and there isn’t much for which his are the right ones.

Rather than actually expanding the short film into a larger story, Sandler basically drops his usual tropes into the mix like awkwardly placed Tetris blocks to create yet another retread where he plays some loser caught up in a silly situation that ultimately allows him to woo a pretty woman.

It begins in 1982 with the Video Game World Championships, which the child versions of the main characters attend as competitors.  NASA records the event and sticks it on one of their early probes as part of a welcome message for any aliens it may encounter out there.  Flash forward to the present, and the kids are all grown up into adult nerd tropes.

Sandler plays Brennan, the one who failed at life and ended up working for the movie’s equivalent of Best Buy’s Geek Squad.  He meets the requisite love interest when he gets called to set up the entertainment system for a recently divorced woman (Michelle Monaghan) and her kid (Matt Lintz).  Their interaction naturally goes awry so they can spend the first half of the movie throwing “witty” barbs at one another despite a mutual attraction.

Meanwhile ET did discover our probe, and they interpreted it to be a challenge.  They create representations of classic games like Galaga and send them to Earth to do battle with our champions.  Whoever loses three “lives”, loses their planet.

Since Brennan’s best friend (Kevin James) grew up to be the stupid fat guy President and Brennan’s a former world video game champ, he gets called in to help fight the aliens.  Throw in the creepy adult virgin obsessed with conspiracy theories (Josh Gad) and Brennan’s jackass rival who’s still stuck in the 80s (Peter Dinklage) and they’ve got a full team of lame gamer stereotypes to take on the likes of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

Most of the human characters grow annoying almost from the word go, but at least the arcade characters are, with one glaring exception, well-realized.  They’re bright, colorful, and generally fun to watch zip around the screen against the contrast of the night.  Sadly, when it shifts to the final battle during the day, they lose a lot of color and the screen fills up with so many of them that the pixelation starts to look more like a mess of nudity censors.

The glaring exception is Q*bert, who gets the shaft completely.  He’s turned into a goofy pet and exposition dump for the heroes, and instead of speaking in Qbertese like in Wreck-It Ralph, they simply use that as a sight-gag when he swears.

Chris Columbus directed this, and there’s nothing especially wrong with his part of it other than some of the actors seem completely bored by the whole affair.  Whether that’s the script’s fault or his it’s hard to say because usually it seems like Sandler & Co. are just improvising as many jokes as they can come up with and throwing them out to see what sticks.  Every once and a while one or two of them will hit, so it’s not entirely without chuckles, but most of the time it’s just tedious.

Since the movie actually is watchable in places, some critics had to find more things to complain about, like how “bro-centric” the movie is such that it must be catering to the #GamerGate crowd. Ignoring the fact that it’s been in the works since 2010 and therefore way before #GamerGate existed, gamers are probably the least likely to enjoy this, especially if they’ve seen the aforementioned and far superior Wreck-It Ralph.

In fact, skip this movie and go put on Wreck-It Ralph instead.  You’ll get to see many of the same arcade game characters, and pretty much all of the good parts featuring them in Pixels are in the trailers anyway.

There were people in my theater who laughed throughout and it’s got enough pretty lights to keep the kids entertained, so I won’t say you should avoid it at all costs afterwards. Therefore, on Ed Morrissey’s Hot Air scale, Pixels gets a 2 for normal audiences:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

For those of you who like video games, it’s more like a 0 – Battlefield Earth, which is to say it wastes the premise so thoroughly that there might be some redeeming quality to using it as an example of how not to make a movie.

Pixels is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments.

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