Saturday, 3 October 2015

Movie Review: Pixels (2015)

I may not be as frequent a gamer as I used to be, but these square eyes aren’t something that have faded since then; I may suck when going against other players, but I still have a large piece of heart dedicated to the bit-bound medium. However, this is another one of those ideas where people actively attempt to create a Reese’s-style combination: People love video games and people love movies. Now, over the last several years, games have become increasingly cinematic thanks to the works of Hideo Kojima and the staff at Naughty Dog, among others, and have yielded some truly amazing results. Transferring the other way, not so much, as I’ve discussed before in great detail. So, with the idea of a video game-centric movie not exactly having the best pedigree to support itself, how do you think it’ll work when backed by the likes of Happy Friggin’ Madison? Only one way to find out. This is Pixels.

The plot: In 1982, a time capsule was launched into space that contained, among other things, samples of arcade games of the era like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Now, a fleet of ships have mysteriously appeared on Earth and are turning everything in their path into pixelated rubble; it seems whoever found the capsule wants to play Earth at its own game, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. In an effort to combat this, U.S. President Cooper (Kevin James) brings in some of his friends who know their way around the old arcades: home theatre specialist Sam (Adam Sandler), conspiracy theorist Ludlow (Josh Gad) and former world champion Eddie (Peter Dinklage). With them co-ordinating with the U.S. military, in particular Lt. Col. Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), they may be Earth’s only chance for survival.

I’ve gone on record about video game adaptations before, and thoroughly thrashed some of them, but films about video games are a bit different. In all honesty, this method is probably the only sensible way to adapt them nowadays; filmmakers get to show off video game-inspired visuals and set pieces, but aren’t necessarily forced to conform to the typically paper-thin plot they’re attached to. Of course, that’s implying that said set pieces actually work and, in a comment that is probably going to make most people immediately close this window, they kind of do. Director Chris Columbus may be a bit of a gun-for-hire, but credit where it’s due for visual flair because the action scenes here are nicely executed. The effects work is good and does a decent job of translating games like Centipede and Donkey Kong onto a third-dimensional space, the scenes themselves are well-paced and the 80’s soundtrack, while a bit disappointing in how limited it is, fits surprisingly well with the old-school arcade ethos of the film. It immediately brings thoughts of late-night gaming sessions where players would bring their own soundtracks; just replace We Will Rock You with Over The Hills And Far Away, and this could easily reflect my youth binge-gaming Elder Scrolls IV. This film is centred on games that were well before my time and even I got that feeling; say what you will about the rest of it, it had to be doing something right to pull that off.

Outside of the fight scenes… oh dear. Sandler, even way back in his early film career, has had a habit of wish fulfilment casting: If his character isn’t the absolute best in his chosen field, then he comes under highly unlikely and fortunate circumstances to be better off than others around him. Despite his pretty slacker occupation (which, admittedly, did feature a nice one-off joke about the way we treat the word ‘geek’ in popular culture), he is a master at old-school arcades who can use patterns to determine where the enemies will move. Now, this wouldn’t even be that bad an idea if it weren’t for the fact that the feeble attempt they make to bring him down a few notches not only doesn’t make sense (why say he sucks at a game when he came second in a world competition playing it?) but by the end, said attempt is completely invalidated anyway. Add to that, we also get his trademark dickish behaviour that always makes audiences question why the hell his characters even have friends in the first place. It doesn’t help that, when we aren’t watching him and the other Arcaders fighting aliens, we’re stuck with weak romance schtick between him and Monaghan, where we suddenly go from sub-Married With Children bickering to short niceties to “We’re a couple now” with almost no transition at one point.

It is around this point that I delve into my bias going into this film, as well as the reasoning behind how I ‘rate’ films on this blog. Every film, regardless of genre, is competing against every other film on the market; sure, I may compulsively watch every film that comes out as best I can, but not everyone has the time nor the funds to do that. It is with this in mind that I come to the realization about the actors here, including Sandler: In comparison to what else I’ve seen them involved in of late, this is a breath of slightly thick fresh air. Josh Gad is pretty obnoxious here, and his homosexual subtext and running-joke conspiracy theorizing can get annoying and more than a little inappropriate for a family film, but after seeing him continuously bomb in The Wedding Ringer, I’m not complaining. Kevin James actually comes across as someone who is competent in their given field, a far cry from his slapsticky annoyance as Paul Blart, and those who keep bringing up how unrealistic it is that he would be President need to keep in mind that, as I write this, Donald Trump could very well get elected as a result of ‘ironic voting’. Michelle Monaghan is a stock love interest that is initially standoffish, but after seeing her fail at all things chemistry in last year’s The Best Of Me, I’ll happily take this. Yeah, it may suck that I had to set my expectations pretty low to see this as being good, but that doesn’t change the fact that I genuinely didn’t have as much issue with the actors as I have in previous Happy Madison productions. Honestly, the real stick in the mud here in terms of the cast is Peter Dinklage, whose indecipherable accent and just plain awkward delivery clash pretty badly with everyone else; this might be as a result of his lack of experience being in this kind of fare, but for whatever reason it kind of sucks that the most decorated actor in the production gives in the worst performance.

This is a prime example of geeksploitation, that oh-so-lovable genre that The Big Bang Theory can hold claim to and fucking keep far as I’m concerned. However, unlike TBBT, it at least feels like some respect was given to the arcade days of gaming this time round, creator of Pac-Man screaming “Bitch” notwithstanding. From the terminology like making their main weapons literal ‘light guns’ to the visual aesthetic that helps sell the idea to the acknowledgement of how far gaming has come since the days of Donkey Kong (Using The Last Of Us may have been an obvious choice for that, but it still fits), there was at least some effort that was made that goes beyond mindless pandering. Honestly, as weird as this may sound, I think Sandler himself may be to thank for this. I say this because he has shown great respect for gaming in cinema once before. In the film Reign On Me, he starred as a man whose life was shattered by the events of 9/11 (I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?) and the film used the PS2 game Shadow Of The Colossus as a thematic device. To put this into non-gamer terms, SotC is an often-used candidate in the discussion of video games as a higher art form, and it actually pulled it off on most accounts. Yeah, it’s weird, but there is some precedent for Sandler being able to pull off video games on screen.

Of course, this doesn’t help escape the fact that this isn’t the most original concept in the world. Yeah, the sentiment has been repeated ad nauseum since this film was announced, but the fact remains: David X. Cohen should sue. For those who don’t know what I’m referring to here, the plot strikes a very strong resemblance to the Futurama episode Anthology Of Interest II, specifically the segment Raiders Of The Lost Arcade where the main character Fry wishes to see what it would be like if real life was like a video game. It ends with him defeating the forces of the planet Nintendu 64 and stopping them from getting their “million allowances worth of quarters” for their laundry. That went on for about 7-8 minutes, the perfect length of time for this story. At 100 minutes or so, this feels needlessly padded; this is the kind of short film that should play before the main feature, not be the actual main feature. What makes this worse is that Billy West, Fry’s voice actor, did some vocal work for this film as well; I can only hope he was paid well. And then there’s the ending, which is made of pure wish fulfilment where everything the heroes want is just given to them. There’s a difference between just rewards for our heroes and making it easy for them, and when you get to the point of turning Q*Bert into a hot warrior chick, you’ve crossed that line. That entire subplot involving Lady Lisa was mangled to begin with, but this ending is just the cherry on top.

All in all, there’s an awful lot wrong with this movie and, I have to admit, the reason why I like this as much as I do is probably because I had my standards set so low that there was probably no way that this film could go lower (at least, under a PG rating). Really, it does feel like a video game; in that I want to skip the useless cutscenes and get back to the fighting. However, even with that said, I can’t say that I feel bad for having spent money to go see this; well done, filmmakers, on having a decent climax so that I leave the theatre with good vibes regardless of the overall product. It ranks higher than Foxcatcher, as this at least registers on my radar, but despite how generic it felt in spots, The Duff made for a more consistently entertaining watch. I’ll probably never watch this again after this, but I can’t bring myself to say that it’s bad. Honestly, I would still recommend sticking to Anthology Of Interest II but I wouldn’t bat an eye at wanting to see this film yourself.

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