Play for the Planet
Speaking for myself, Pixels couldn’t have come out at a better time. About a month or so ago, my brother, good friend and I, stumbled on an old-school arcade machine that was buried at the back of our local coffee spot. Being ‘80s kids, we decided to reacquaint ourselves with some of our childhood favorites, and have since been returning. Whether attempting to get the high score on Galaga, discovering a Ms. Pac-Man or lasting more than a minute on Frogger, this neglected machine has somehow rekindled our love for retro gaming. If this wasn’t enough, a couple of weeks back, I came across — and installed — a new 3D endless Pac-Man maze game for the iPhone, Pac-Man 256, named after the infamous Pac-Man Map 256 Glitch, which renders the final Pac-Man board unplayable. Now, imagine if you will, my anticipation walking into Pixels with the knowledge that the world of 8-bit gaming was about to spring to life, right before my very eyes — Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) however, did do a commendable job of bringing this bygone era to the screen some time ago.
If one can get passed all the juvenile ‘Happy Madison’ stuff, or the fact that Kevin James, Grown Ups (2010), plays the U.S. President, then Pixels is a smashing success. What’s it about, one might ask? Well, think Ghostbusters (1984), only with popular ‘80s video game characters. Loosely based on Patrick Jean’s amazing French short of the same name, Pixels begins in the summer of 1982, when Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito in his youth, Adam Sandler in the present-day) a teenage gaming maestro, loses to Eddie Plant (a solid Andrew Bambridge in his adolescence, and an even better Peter Dinklage when he’s older), at the Arcade Game World Championships, after fumbling on a curtail match of Donkey Kong and coming in at second place. Several years later, we discover that the once thriving Sam — having never recovered from his defeat at the tournament — has settled for a dead-end job working as a member of the Geek Squad, where he installs electronics and video game systems in the homes of more successful folk. At least his chubby pal Will Cooper (Kevin James) is now the President of the United States, albeit a lousy one with diminishing poll numbers!
Following an awkward encounter between Sam and tough military mother Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), it’s ‘Game On’ after a U.S. military base in Guam is suddenly turned into 8-bit rubble by a mysterious foe. You see, once President Cooper realizes that a time capsule that was sent into outer space decades ago — containing video feeds of our ‘then’ contemporary popular culture — has been interpreted by an alien race as a declaration of war, he enlists the aid of his nerdy pal Sam, onetime gaming friend now conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and the imprisoned Eddie Plant — who calls himself ‘Fireblaster’— to advise the military, much to their chagrin, on how to defeat this new found enemy with a focus on hand-eye coordination and attack patterns. Now, with the threat sending down large versions of the characters from classic games, and Earth having already lost two battles — the aforementioned army base and the Taj Mahal — Sam and his team of arcaders must fight for the planet as one more defeat (in video game logic) would mean that it’s reset time for the inhabitants of Earth.
It would be safe to assume that Pixels is all about the nostalgia factor, as hundreds of classic coin-op characters have literally been brought to life — right down to their original arcade sound effects — in this pop culture tribute. Fortunately, everything from Burger Time and Centipede, to Paperboy and Joust, has been spectacularly rendered, in gorgeous 3D, thanks to a number of impressive, well executed and original looking special effects. Seeing the final battle against a life-like 8-bit Donkey Kong is worth the price of admission alone. Directed by Chris Columbus, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), the once mighty franchise filmmaker, Pixels displays a tremendous amount of respect for the era and the games it’s paying homage to; from the Arkanoid attack in India to the Pac-Man sequence in New York — where the city is literally transformed into a massive Pac-Man grid, with our heroes using colored cars as ghosts in order to catch ‘big yella’ before he reaches a power pellet — this is inspired global warfare with icons from the past working as nostalgic threats.
Specifically designed for ‘80s kids — who will no doubt eat this up like Pac-Man — Pixels sports many other wonderful era-specific references, from the alien’s threatening messages — sent through altered video footage of icons from yesteryear such as Hall & Oates and Madonna — to the picture’s spot on arcade titles, Pixels is bright, lively entertainment. Assuming that the majority of Sandler’s fans would roughly be around his age, which at the moment is round about 49, most should definitely get a kick out of seeing what’s on display here. Okay, while I’m the first to admit that Tim Herlihy, Happy Gilmore (1996), and Timothy Dowling’s, Just Go with It (2011), screenplay lacks a bit of logic (it could’ve done with a couple of proofreads), seeing as a large chunk of Pixels doesn’t make much sense — our heroes are, all of a sudden, seen driving four customized Mini Coopers, ready to challenge Pac-Man, whilst the Tetris blocks that appear are a little questionable, given the fact that the game was created in 1984, two years after the time capsule was supposedly launched, with Paperboy being released in 1985 and Arkanoid, 86 — the picture is silly, infectious fun nonetheless, with Columbus maintaining its madcap energy from start to finish.
Wearing tailor-made jumpsuits, that vaguely resemble those of the Ghostbusters, a few of the Pixels cast could have done with a ‘Power Up.’ Adam Sandler, Grown Ups (2010), does his usual comic shtick as the affable Sam Brenner, complete with hammy line delivery and cheesy dialogue, but looks a little run down or tired here, leaving the bulk of the comedy up to his co-stars. Kevin James manages to be the least convincing U.S. President to date, flaunting his typical goofball antics about, needles to say, he actually delivers a few solid chuckles here and there. Josh Gad, The Wedding Ringer (2015), on the other hand is tonally jumbled as the über-geek Ludlow Lamonsoff, failing to strike that difficult balance between friendless virgin and deranged lunatic, with a lot of his unwelcome improvisation missing the mark. Thankfully, Game of Thrones (2011) star Peter Dinklage is terrific as Sam’s brash pint-sized former video game-playing nemesis, Eddie Plant, modelling his character around real-life gaming champion and The King of Kong (2007) ‘baddie,’ Billy Mitchell. Michelle Monaghan, The Heartbreak Kid (2007), is peppy and charismatic as weapons developer and Brenner’s ‘far-fetched’ love interest, Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten, elsewhere, Ashley Benson, Spring Breakers (2012), doesn’t say a word as the smokon’ Lady Lisa, a sexy warrior from the fictional 1982 video game Dojo Quest. Surprisingly, the film’s heartiest laughs come from Q*bert, a jittery trophy who pops up at around the mid-way mark as a prize for Earth’s victorious gamers.
Like most Sandler comedies, Pixels sports a number of noteworthy cameos; Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity (2002), relishes his role as Admiral Porter, a military heavyweight who just wants to blow everything up, Sean Bean, GoldenEye (1995) — contrary to most of his other parts — survives for the entire movie as Corporal Hill while real Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani has a tiny role as an arcade repair man, with actor Denis Akiyama, Johnny Mnemonic (1995), playing a fictionalized version of Iwatani. Ghostbuster, Dan Aykroyd makes a welcome appearance as the 1982 Arcade Championship M.C., whereas tennis champion, Serena Williams and American businesswoman Martha Stewart, show up in a couple of thankless cameos as themselves.
Embracing its inner nerd, Pixels works best when it’s locked in battle mode, as filmmaker Columbus harks all the way back to the Amblin days of old, with his ocular imagination and playful sense of the past. Bar a few crass moments from Sandler and co., a number of predictable character arcs and some narrative flaws, Pixels is a fast-paced nostalgic sci-fi treat that the whole family can enjoy. To get technical about its title, Pixels, which should actually be named ‘Voxels,’ certainly makes for one wild ride, as I can assure you, when it’s ‘Game Over,’ viewers won’t be asking for their quarters back!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Pixels is released through Sony Pictures Australia