Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Pixels" Review: Videogames Deserve Better Than This Extremely Lazy Effort From Team Sandler And So Do We



History tells us that any movie attempting to incorporate video games into it will be complete crap. If it isn't a movie based on a game (Super Mario Bros./Double Dragon/Doom) then it is a movie about video games (The Wizard/Grandma's Boy) and they will all fail. While there are some decent video game based movies out there (Mortal Kombat being the best adaptation and Scott Pilgrim being the best all around movie to actually get what video games are about), we will never see a great example until someone in Hollywood realizes that in order to do the video game industry justice they need to employ people who not only understand video games but love them (and not in an ironic way). Sadly the latest attempt from the Adam Sandler group, while novel in its approach, continues this horrible tradition with the alien invasion spoof Pixels. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 45 min
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date: July 24, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Classic arcade games, videogames in general
Likes: Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Columbus
Neutral:  Liberties taken with the world of videogames
Hates: Outright disrespect towards the hobby of the target audience
Want a better videogame movie? Try Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.


Back in 1982 there was an arcade video game competition held...somewhere, in which 13 year old video game prodigy Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) competed for first place against the legendary and self named Fireball (Peter Dinklage). The game that would decide their fates was none other than the arcade classic Donkey Kong and after a brutal showdown Fireball pulls out a narrow win against Sam, a loss that would go on to haunt Sam for the rest of his life. That exact competition was filmed and the footage was added to NASA's package for greetings towards other life that accompanied one of the satellites launched into deep space. Fast forward 33 years later and wouldn't you know it, the Earth is under attack by an alien invader who has taken that very same footage of video games and used it to fashion an alien army that looks, sounds and behaves exactly like all those 1980 arcade classics. Who you gonna call?

In the mean time we catch up with a much older Sam who is hanging out with his childhood best friend Will (Kevin James) at the local bar who just so happens to be the President of the United States. Yes, you read that correctly, Paul Blart is now the President. While things seem to have turned out pretty good for his buddy Will, poor Sam is stuck in a dead end job working as a tech geek installer. Clearly still impacted by that huge loss when he was 13 (yes, that was apparently the turning point in Sam's life), Sam is now just coasting through life in hopes that maybe someday he can redeem himself. Well wouldn't you know it, not only is there an alien invasion in the form of the exact same video games he is an expert at, but his best friend also happens to be the President and is able to put him in command of the very operation to defeat this alien menace. With time running out Sam then assembles the best video game players in the world which includes his long time friend and paranoid conspiracy theorist Ludlow (Josh Gad) and his former rival Fireball to fight for the planet, one quarter at a time.


Oh boy...where to start. I am of two minds when it comes to Pixels as I cannot deny that while watching it I was entertained, even if it was on a purely nostalgic level. However, that entertainment value came at a price that just isn't acceptable in this day in age where video game awareness is at an all time high. Maybe you could have skated by with a half ass effort like this 10 or 20 years ago but just like how computers used to be treated in film, filmmakers can't fake it anymore. Many would think, and rightfully so, that the problems behind Pixels lies with the fact that this is an Adam Sandler movie made by his Happy Madison studio (the same people behind the alarmingly bad Grown Ups movies among many others).

Surprisingly though the Sandler factor is the least of this films many problems which begin and end with its extremely dated depiction of video games and the people who play them. Let's push aside for a second the absurdity that only 3 guys from the 80's comprise the world's best video game players and that none of those guys have seemingly played a video game that was made after 1985. Instead let's discuss what is in the opinion of this reviewer to be one of the weakest and laziest screenplays in modern history. That little tid bit earlier about Sam's best friend being the President was only the tip of the iceberg as this entire film is laced with coincidences that are so painfully forced and unecessary that it actually takes the spotlight away from the atrocities towards the video game community.


Try to make sense of these coincidences. Sam competed in what apparently was the only videogame competition ever that just so happened to be filmed and sent into space to be intercepted by aliens. Because Sam needs a second chance at redemption Sam is not only best friends with the President of the United States who has the power to give him that no other President on the planet would, but his friend's administration just so happens to coincide with an alien invasion comprised of the exact same videogames he used to play when he was a kid. To give a romantic slant Sam meets the recent divorcee Violet (Michelle Monaghan) while installing her kids videogame entertainment center which so happens to be on the same day the alien invasion happens.

Even better is that Violet not only begins to fall for Sam while she decides to get drunk in her closet with Sam where he displays that he is wiser than his job implies (with her kid still in the house by the way) but she is also the exact same Lieutenant Colonel the President (Sam's best friend) calls into action at that very moment while also calling Sam in at the same time so the two can discover on the drive to the White House that SURPRISE!, we are going to the same exact place! That is just in the first 15 minutes and don't even get me started on how Ludlow, Sam's friend he hasn't seen in years was apparently hiding in Sam's work van the entire day...what?

Now, there is absolutely no reason for all these people to be interconnected like that other than the writers just didn't care enough to come up with a plausible reason for any of them to eventually meet. Instead of setting up Sam as the premiere gamer in the world who is sought out by the military for his expertise and meeting both the President and Violet for the first time and being asked to help save the world while also setting himself up for redemption, we have the President invite him over because they are best friends and he just so happens to meet Violet through his job on the very day they are both needed at the White House at the exact same time. This is like if the Ghostbusters only got to bust ghosts because they all knew the Mayor from childhood and when a ghost showed up he called them up to go take care of it.


If lazy writing were the only problem though then Pixels would be in good shape but the real disaster is that no one involved in this film, save for maybe Josh Gad, seems to either care about or even get what makes videogames and the people who play them so special and unique. Having your main protagonist be the best gamer in the world isn't all that far fetched, but having him be this tool who works as a geek technician (way to gain geek street cred there) along with the fact that he USED to play videogames back in the 80's, well that is darn well blasphemus on nearly every level. A true gamer wouldn't give up after losing a competition when they were just 13. What happened, did he never own a Nintendo, Sega or Playstation over the next 3 decades? Nobody that into videogames could ever just quit because they lost a competition. Plus if he hasn't been playing games all these years chances are he would be bit more rusty than depicted here.

Furthermore to add insult to injury, while it makes perfect sense for all the alien invaders to be derived from classic videogames, it doesn't make a lick of sense that none of these people fighting them are aware of current videogames. The videogame industry is 20 times the size it was back in 80's and for the film to imply that these guys are unaware of the current generation of videogames just stinks of a lack of knowledge on the writers part. The insults keep coming though as in a sort of clever plot twist it is revealed that one of the gamers is a cheater, but the reveal of how he cheats and what he cheats at makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Cheat codes didn't exist back in the 80's, especially for arcade games and even more so when said cheat code consists of an overly complex mathematical equation that would make Will Hunting scratch his head.


Probably the biggest ball drop of all is how the filmmakers have failed at capturing what it is to be a gamer today. To have all the members of the Arcaders (that is the name of their team) not only be guys but only older guys is just a total failure to understand the subject matter they are pilaging. Why not have a younger gamer come in to lend a hand or how about this? Why not have a female gamer join the group? While female gamers were rarer than a unicorn back in the 80's they account for nearly 40% of gamers today and to leave that demographic completely out to dry is a real shame and an insult to the audience they are trying to pander to. If you try to argue that Michelle Monaghan's character is part of the group then you are missing the point entirely.

How about the actors? They are good though right? Surprisingly the acting is pretty spot on for the most part. Josh Gad makes for a satisfactory old school style gamer whose energy level gives the film a much needed injection of fun when it needs it the most. Peter Dinklage, doing this strange sort of Cajun/French/Southern accent, is also a lot of fun as the overly cocky gamer who always trash talks even when he clearly hasn't earned the right. Kevin James as the President is just dumb, but not in any real offensive way as the casting feels more innocently naive. Michelle Monaghan does her best with what was given to her but that doesn't change the fact that it is hard watching her slum it like she is asked to do here.


I know what your thinking, I forgot one right? That's right, and forgot is a very apt term for it. Adam Sandler has been walking like a zombie through his roles for the past decade now and nowhere more than in Pixels has it been as prominent that he just doesn't care anymore. Sam is supposed to be the best gamer in the world but when he is out there killing life size versions of the games he used to play as a kid there is a significant lack of joy or fun in his performance that actually takes away from the film's better elements, the 3D realizations and recreations of all those arcade classics. It's hard to say if the film would have been any better if we had someone in the lead role that had more enthusiasm for the material, but at the very least it couldn't have been any worse.

If this is all sounding a tad bitter that is because it is extremely frustrating when a project so ripe with potential falls into the wrong hands. Even with the large amount of contempt shown towards gamers and the gaming community at large and even with some of the laziest writing ever committed to screen or even with the lackluster contributions of Adam Sandler and his team, every single time we see those classic arcade games come to life on the big screen it just brings a big stupid grin to our faces. Seeing Pac-Man use the city streets of New York as his maze or how Centipede turns a park in Paris into a shooting gallery, there is a certain level of charm to all the visuals that is impossible to deny. It's just too bad those sequences aren't more abundant as they are clearly the only reason to even consider seeing the film.


Perhaps the success of those seequences is due to the fact that the film was directed by Chris Columbus, a man who knows how to make fun and exciting films. While his career has had its number of low points (Bi-Centenial Man/I Love You, Beth Cooper) he has had enough high points (Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter) that it is apparent he knows what he is doing when it comes to delivering a lot of fun visuals and instilling them with a high energy to help support all the crazy action. It's difficult to say at this point if Columbus' involvement in the film was more of a benefit than it was a detrimant but he likely had something to do with those very few moments in Pixels that actually worked like they should have.

Pixels isn't so much a bad film as it just a really disappointing one. While on the Sandler scale that means the film was better than expected, on the quality scale that means all we got was another failed attempt at bringing videogames to the big screen. But even with all those past failures this one hurts a bit more than usual simply because the gimmick of a team of gamers fighting off real life sized video game characters is a really cool idea. This could have and should have been the Ghostbusters for this generation. All the pieces were there yet somehow they were entrusted to someone who didn't know how to put them together. Pixels likely won't be the worst film you see all year, but chances are it will be one of the most disappointing ones.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

While the script will win all kinds of awards for being the laziest, most contrived and completely unbelievable screenplay of the year, the film itself will only find itself quickly forgotten and lamented about in the dark recesses of every gamers mind who will always wonder what could have been? When Adam Sandler makes a bad movie about love, work or getting together with all his friends for a paid vacation it is easy to write them off and forget they ever existed. But when he tackles something as near and dear to our hearts as videogames he better dam well know what he is getting into and sadly it appears he lept before he looked, something every gamer knows is a rookie mistake.

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