Pixels (dir. Chris Columbus)

Posted: July 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Pixels” is an unfunny and sexist comedy that makes up its own rules as it goes along and occasionally coasts by on nostalgia and an energetic performance by Peter Dinklage.  The few moments of the film that are fun can be replicated for much cheaper by watching old 80s commercials and music videos on Youtube in the privacy of your own home. While the film is more aggressively mediocre than outright bad, it is a hugely wasted opportunity, and that is far more disappointing than if this had just been another in a long line of bad Adam Sandler comedies.

Sandler will take a lot of the blame on this film, but really the screenplay is the major culprit here.  The screenwriters, Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, created a story in which a time capsule from 1982 is sent into space, received by aliens, and then the aliens misunderstand it as a warning and attack Earth using its own pop culture.  The one thing the writers could have done, in setting this up, is made sure to only include pop cultural references up to the year 1982. Nope. We get references to “Duck Hunt” (1984), as well as characters like Max Headroom (also 1984) that simply couldn’t have been in a 1982 time capsule. Now, I know you might be saying “who cares if the years are accurate?”  But the thing is, nothing forced these writers to choose 1982 for their year in question.  They could just as easily have chosen 1984, 1985, or 1986.  They chose their year, and they couldn’t even stick to their own terms. At least in Sandler’s other 80s nostalgia movie, “The Wedding Singer” (1998), they set it in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the decade, merely to let the audience know they were taking a broad stroke of the pen to the entire era.  As much as I love seeing Max Headroom on the big screen, the specific date this time has major plot significance, and it irked me. Herlihy has been responsible for the screenplays of many Sandler movies, and Dowling has written really bad comedies like “This Means War” before (though he also wrote the decent “Role Models”).  These guys shouldn’t be allowed to ruin a good concept.

I can’t even credit the writers with the concept because that was adapted from a short film, also called “Pixels” (2010) that they had nothing to do with.  The premise is also suspiciously similar to an even earlier 2002 episode of “Futurama”, but whatever.  If they had actually managed to write a funny movie, this wouldn’t matter.  Sadly, the only joy this film brings is in aping the older creations of others (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong) and using them as window dressing for mildly amusing action sequences.  Anything original that the writers brought, like the human characters, the specifics of the plot added to the premise, and gags, are all pretty much garbage.  While I’m tempted to praise them for creating Dinklage’s character, a cocky video game champion named Eddie who gave himself the nickname of Fireblaster, that character is so obviously based on real life video game champion Billy Mitchell that it barely counts as a character.  At least Dinklage has obvious fun playing the role, but we can just watch the real Mitchell in the excellent retro gaming documentary “The King of Kong” (2007) and avoid this film altogether.

Perhaps if Eddie had been our main character this film could have been something.  Instead our main character is Sam Brenner, played by Sandler.  Most of Sandler’s line delivery sounds like he was dragged out of bed against his will at 4:30AM and forced to act.  I’ve never seen Sandler look so bored and utterly disinterested in the proceedings.  I wonder if he even bothered to cash his paycheck from the film.  I know for a fact Sandler can act, as he has shown this in his dramas like “Punch Drunk Love” and the great, underrated “Reign Over Me”, so I can only surmise that he really just didn’t give a shit.  That’s pretty disrespectful as both Dinklage and Josh Gad, playing a conspiracy nut, seem to actually be trying.  In addition, we get Kevin James playing the President of the United States (okay…since he’ll never get the chance to play that role again, I guess good for him?) and Michelle Monaghan as a love interest for Sandler.

The movie is essentially a long series of unfunny scenes that act as connective tissue until we can see a nostalgic thing from the past (Q-Bert! Paperboy! Hall & Oates!) or hear an old late 70s-early 80s hit on the soundtrack that makes us smile out of fond remembrance of that thing.  The Pac-Man chase scene is the one scene of the film that almost works as more than nostalgia, but the trailers have given away that scene in nearly its entirety, undercutting the joy you may have felt while watching it.  There’s also the weird matter of what the rules are in this universe.  The pixilated alien creatures are made out of light energy, and the U.S. military (rather quickly) creates light-energy weapons to defeat them. Okay, but then why can a regular crane made of metal pick up a Frogger creature?  Also, why is Pac-Man able to eat a pellet and override the energy force fields the military created for the Mini-Cooper ghosts?  And another thing: why do the aliens consider using a cheat code as cheating?  If it’s a code that was placed into the game by its designers, then the makers of the game WANTED people to find and use it, and thus it becomes not against the rules.  Also, how the hell can you use a cheat code while driving an actual car on an actual road?  And why would a cheat code for Pac-Man work in real life if in the game you play AS Pac-Man but our heroes are playing as ghosts in the real world?  The writers spent less time coming up with this script than I did just typing those questions.

I lastly have to mention how misogynist this film is.  We get two off-screen women characters whose jobs are to yell at men and have men yell and demean them back.  We have women who are given as “trophies” and prizes to men for a job well done (including Martha Stewart and Serena Williams, for some reason).  The most misogynist thing in this film, though, is the Josh Gad character’s love of a fictional female video game warrior named Lady Lisa.  The writers created this character solely to have a sexy female warrior for Gad’s character to crush on, since apparently no real-life counterpart exists, but the writers still REALLY wanted this B story.  For no reason, against the rules, this character becomes un-pixelated and looks like a regular woman in her introductory scene, for no other reason than to have her look sexy and not like a bunch of glowing blocks. (She’s played by actress Ashley Benson).  She doesn’t talk, and thus exhibits no personality, showing that Gosh solely wants this woman for her looks and has no interest in or desire for, her personality (except that she’s “strong”).  She turns into a good guy when Gad proclaims his love for her. Okay.  Later, when she “dies”, Q-Bert, who is allowed to live because the aliens gave him to the humans as a trophy for defeating them in one of their challenges, decides to become Lady Lisa out of pity for Gad’s sadness (what?), and then the last scene in the movie lets us know that Gad has fucked Q-Bert as a woman and they’ve had baby Q-Berts. Eww.  We have a sexy woman who doesn’t speak and has no personality be a literal trophy for creepy, horny loser.  I’m sure the Gamergate Men’s Rights Activists will like this turn.

A really good movie could have made about our nostalgia killing us.  In this age where Lucky Charms are being sold to 90s kids who are now parents, nostalgia is weighing on our (older millennials’) generation more than seems like it was the norm prior.  Sure, the adults of the 70s had “Grease” for their 50s nostalgia, but 80s and 90s nostalgia have become a big money business now. Just this summer we’ve gotten “Jurassic World”, a new “Terminator”, and a “Vacation” reboot.  It seems like we don’t want original ideas, we want our beloved childhoods back, at least entertainment-wise.  “Pixels” exploits that while giving us nothing else to enjoy.  The movie is empty nostalgia cynically sold to us.  The movie expects our memories to entertain us, and doesn’t bother trying to entertain us itself. C-.

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