Jared McMillan // Film Critic
I loved playing video games as a kid. Actually, I still play video games (although being an adult means I can’t get into it as much as I once did). My first ever console was the original NES my parents bought for my brother and I. It was a glorious box that bombarded our imagination in 8-bit glory. But, it was just entertainment. It was just something we used in between the intricacies of growing up. I couldn’t have fathomed playing Duck Hunt would evolve into first-person shooters like Halo, or that video games would be as popular as they are worldwide. Even though what used to be niche, hobbies like gaming or reading comics, has now come to the forefront of pop culture; we still clamor for the nostalgia.
I saw the original short PIXELS (2010) back when it first popped up on YouTube. It was a fun tap into the old days of 8-bit classics like Pac-Man and Tetris, but also a metaphor on how nostalgia has invaded us as a sub-category of entertainment. There seems to be almost an endless cycle of commentary regarding the revision of original movies to be churned out by Hollywood, the old becoming the new. Just this year there are remakes of POLTERGEIST and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION; Christmas sees POINT BREAK and next year holds GHOSTBUSTERS. So when it was announced that there would be a full-length version of PIXELS, I wasn’t surprised in the least. However, when it was announced that it was under the Happy Madison banner, that’s when I cringed.
The story opens in the year 1982. Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and his friend Will Cooper (Jared Riley) rush over to the opening of a new arcade, where Sam, in a short montage, is quickly discovered to be an arcade wizard (Will points out that Sam’s awesome, even though he’s never played the game before) and gains local celebrity. Will gives Sam a flyer for the 1982 Arcade Championships, which dissolves into the start of the tourney. A cameo by Dan Aykroyd as the emcee lets the audience know that the tournament will be taped and sent off into space via NASA to try and communicate with alien life through pop culture? Ok… I’ll bite Dan Aykroyd. Suffice to say, Sam loses in the final to the mulleted video game champ Eddie Plant (Andrew Bainbridge) after a spirited game of Donkey Kong. Will cheers him up by talking about getting older and scoring famous women.
Match cut to 33 years later, with older Sam (Adam Sandler) and Will (Kevin James) still talking about attractive famous women, which Sam stopping the conversation by pointing out how creepy it is to do that. Now, though, roles have reversed as Sam is an employee of an A/V installation company and Will is famous for being the president (yes… Kevin James is President of the United States). But they’re still friends and can hang out at a local pub! Meanwhile, in Guam, aliens attack a military base in the form of Galaga.
The next day, Sam goes on an install and meets Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) and her son, Matty (Matt Lintz). He and the lady Van Patten bond over shared divorce stories and day drinking, but then it gets awkward when Sam goes for the smooch. They now can’t stand each other! Sam gets a call from President Cooper to meet him at the White House, where Violet Van Patten is going as well because she’s Lt. Col. Van Patten! “But Jared, weren’t they just daydrinking?” Yes, they were, but everyone is extremely lucid now. Anyway, President Cooper needs Sam’s help because they both can tell that Galaga has somehow attacked our planet and we’re off to the races.
There are details like these that account for two of the biggest problems with PIXELS: continuity and plot holes. For instance, after Sam leaves the White House, you see someone’s butt in the background, which turns out to be his old gamer friend Ludlow (Josh Gad). He apparently had gotten in before going to the Van Patten install and had been there the whole time. No one notices until his plumber’s crack is showing on screen? Not even the military checkpoint? Also, they intercept the aliens’ signal through VHS tapes. “But Jared, it’s essentially a portable reel-to-reel with no way to receive any signal, let alone a digital signal!” Don’t shoot the messenger.
While I make fun of these slights, I was sort-of happy with just letting them go because the action sequences involving the video games were really cool. The first real battle between humans and aliens came in the form of Centipede; the second was a showdown with Pac-Man. Each sequence involved low-angles and tracking shots to give it an adventurous feel. That’s no surprise coming from Chris Columbus, who’s come into his own with adventure after directing the first two HARRY POTTER films, as well as PERCY JACKSON & THE LIGHTENING THIEF (yes, I know he did HOME ALONE and MRS. DOUBTFIRE, but those don’t really have action set pieces). Also, it was a smart choice to go 3D with the film, because I couldn’t find anything wrong with its use; I was surprised with how seamless it was.
The screenplay is where the fault lies with PIXELS. The writers – Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling – are like the ghosts of Pac-Man, just wondering around until they get swallowed up by what’s chasing them. I thought the reintroduction of Sam’s nemesis, Eddie (Peter Dinklage), would bring an interesting dynamic, but it turns out to just be a plot device to help Sam realize he’s not the loser he thinks he is today. In fact, Eddie is just there to invoke the crisis that leads to the climax. Use Peter Dinklage wisely people. Josh Gad was a pleasant surprise, just ad-libbing all kinds of insanity, giving the movie some great laughs. However, he eventually takes a backseat in terms of dialogue, and we get more of Sam’s “generational gap” rhetoric (“When I was your age…”).
I can’t really say that PIXELS is a good popcorn movie because of all of its flaws, but I can say that kids will love it. There were a lot of children at the screening having a great time with their parents, which gives a little leeway in terms of how I look at it. If it’s aimed at children, there can be some flaws because adults aren’t the intended audience. But, building your story around 80s nostalgia, you bring in the adult demographic, so I have to take that into account in my review. Also, ruining Q*Bert doesn’t bode well for the end result.
PIXELS opens tonight at 7 p.m. in participating theaters and opens nationwide tomorrow.