2015 has become the year of nostalgia in Hollywood, Jurassic World reminding us how awesome dinosaurs are, Mad Max proving that there’s life in 80’s style action movies and Terminator Genisys proving that some things are better left in the past, or future, or alternate timeline, nexus flows – where was I?
Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan
Run Time: 106 Minutes
Exhibition: 2D. Also available in 3D and IMAX 3D
Release Date: August 8, 2015 (UK), Out Now (US)
Continuing this trend is Pixels, a movie selling itself as the ultimate homage to 1980s arcade gaming nostalgia in a setting which merges Independence Day with Tron.
Now, I’m a child of the 80’s, a life-long gamer, I have a soft spot for retro gaming, I’m a science fiction geek and I am always willing to ignore Adam Sandler’s past mistakes and not pre-judge a movie on his appearance – this movie is already winning before I’ve even sat down to watch it.
I am the perfect target audience for this movie, so why did I come away from my viewing wishing I’d actually spent the time being repeatedly RKO’ed by an angry panda?
To answer that question, let’s first go back to the source material. Pixels began life as a short film by an independent French director named Patrick Jean. The short movie, released in 2010, told the story of an old thrown away TV which starts magically spawning 8-bit video game characters who rampage through the streets of Manhattan, turning everything they touch into pixelated blocks. It’s a simple premise which worked extremely well in its two-and-a-half minute run-time as clever, visual art.
Happy Madison Productions saw greatness in Jean’s movie and purchased the rights to turn that concept into a Hollywood feature. Fast forward five years and we now have the perfect example of how a great idea, quite a unique idea – something very rare these days – can be ruined by the tedium of Hollywood’s lazy story-telling.
The premise for the story itself is actually intriguing, fun and screams potential. In 1982, NASA send out a probe containing examples of human culture, including footage of video games, in the hope of finding and communicating with an alien race. Cut to the present day and the great news is that they succeeded, the bad news, however, is that the aliens have misinterpreted the message as a declaration of war and sent homicidal physical versions of beloved video games characters to destroy the Earth.
On that basis alone, this could have been a good movie, with a decent writer this could have been a great movie, sadly there’s more.
Sandler plays “Adam Sandler in every Adam Sandler movie”, the man-child who must learn a valuable lesson before he can grow up. In Pixels, his character, Sam Brenner, is an underachieving nerd who is haunted by his loss at the 1982 worldwide arcade game championship – seriously I’m not making this up. Thankfully his best friend, played by Kevin James, is the president of the United States – I swear I’m not making this up – who calls upon his old gaming buddy for help when the aliens begin their attack.
Realising that the highly trained US Army are no match for Brenner’s gaming skills, the fate of the world is left in hands of the arcaders. Joining the main cast as another childhood friend is Josh Gad – apparently very popular in the snowman community – who plays socially awkward Ludlow, a man obsessed with conspiracy theories and one particular female pixelated character. Completing the team is currently one of TVs best actors, Peter Dinklage, sporting a mullet only 1980s wrestlers would be proud of, as Brenner’s gaming rival, former gaming champion Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant.
While Sandler and James may be playing their most likable characters in years, it’s default mode for the pair. Sandler is still playing the kind of guy who’d put the moves on a recently split mother while she’s drunk and crying – yep that happens – and James is still the bumbling overweight idiot with good intentions – see Mall Cop. There’s no real depth to the characters besides the opening scene at the gaming championship and that’s further hindered by the fact that neither actor looks like they want to be there. There are movies where it clearly shows that the actors enjoyed themselves during the filming, this isn’t one of them.
The other characters don’t fare much better, where Gad’s character comes off as creepy stalker in dire need of psychological help, it’s Dinklage that really lets the side down. A mixture of poor writing and over-acting means that no amount of good will from Games of Thrones can help Dinklage deliver a watchable performance, for someone we know is a fantastic actor, this is embarrassing.
Sadly the same must be said about the supporting cast. Screen legends Brian Cox and Sean Bean are both cast in appallingly poorly written roles given their talent and stature, why they agreed to the movie in the first place is beyond me. If that wasn’t bad enough, misogyny is writhe throughout with the female cast being used as nothing more than stand-ins for the most part. 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski is given two throwaway scenes as the First Lady, Ashley Benson’s Lady Lisa, the video game character Ludlow is obsessed with, is literally handed over as a trophy and Michelle Monaghan’s female lead, a military scientist no less, is reduced to being referred to as “Sugar Bum” and “Snobby” for the majority of the movie.
The one saving grace in the movie is the set-pieces involving the infamous video game recreations, there are some spectacular moments when it’s hard not to be in awe. The highlight being the Pac-Man rampage through the streets of New York, interestingly we get more emotion and growth from the big yellow ball than we do from the main cast. The special effects are impressive for the most part and the three-dimensional recreations of the arcade characters are superb but with such a disjointed and poorly written story it just feels like the movie jumps from one set-piece to another, never building up to anything more than mediocrity.
I was left feeling taken for granted by this movie, there is no faith in the intelligence of the viewer, no respect shown. The movie follows the formula of, bad joke, bad joke, sexist Adam Sandler comment, bad joke, hey look, something shiny from your childhood, bad joke. Sadly, Pixels is just under two hours of this on repeat with no hope of growing.
Pixels is the kind of brainless, lazy and poorly thought out movie that makes me hope that there aren’t aliens out there monitoring our culture, because if they are we really could be doomed.