Monday, 10 August 2015

Pixels | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Alien invasion comedy resurrects classic video games in all their pixelated glory

Centipede. Donkey Kong. Asteroids. Pac-Man. Most of us who grew up in the eighties did battle with these icons. The video games, with their graphic primitiveness and single screen action, reflect a simpler time . . . a time of striped socks pulled up to the knees, big hair bands with mind-numbing lyrics, and backyard or field-down-the-road sports.

Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus, brings the ultimate eighties intellect (i.e., Adam Sandler) to the screen with a straightforward objective (i.e., save the world), a plot as simple as a yellow circle munching dots, and an outcome as predictable as the first level in a classic video game. It has a middle school mentality, and it’s a blast!

Aliens vs. Nerds
1982 world video game champion hopeful Sam Brenner (Sandler) has become a disillusioned employee (“I’m just a loser who was good at old video games”) of the Nerd Brigade, a technology installation/repair company that forces its employees to wear humiliating orange uniforms. His life seems a disappointment, until aliens threaten the earth with gigantic versions of those beloved eighties video game characters. How’s that for a concept?!

The aliens, using modified video footage of eighties legends ranging from Daryl Hall and John Oates to Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, challenge earthlings to a series of video game competitions.

Lifelong friend Will Cooper (Kevin James), now the charmingly bumbling President (of the United States!) pleads with Brenner to reboot his long-dormant gaming skills to resist the aliens. So Brenner and a couple of cartoonish sidekicks set out to save the world. They will fall in love, take outrageous risks, and best of all, lavish the viewer with the triumphant feeling that comes when nerds prevail.

Adam Sandler typically plays one of two roles: the lovable goofball (e.g., The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison) or the down-to-earth good guy (e.g., Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates). In Pixels, it’s the latter, and it makes sense with an “event film” like this. Moreover, Brenner’s “Arcader” allies are more than enough to compensate for Sandler’s toned down lead.

First, there’s “Wonder Boy” Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a conspiracy theorist who lives with his grandmother and longs to win the love of blonde bombshell Lady Lisa. Ludlow has his work cut out for him, since Lady Lisa is a video game character. Then there’s Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), a supremely narcissistic former world video game champion serving time for tech crimes. Rounding out the team are the fun-loving President Cooper and Brenner’s love interest Violet (Michelle Monaghan).

Playing the Patterns
Pixels repeatedly references the importance of recognizing and acting on the “patterns” within classic video games. Similarly, the film’s makers capitalize on recent alien invasion successes: the destruction of universally recognized monuments, the Independence Day recklessness of tossing the U.S. President into the fray, the aliens dropping from a mother ship for Avengers/Transformers-style all-out urban chaos. Pixels, in essence, plays the patterns, and it wins.

Game challenges pair special effects—ironic, considering the film’s graphically archaic muses—with late seventies/early eighties rock anthems. Brenner and Ludlow, accompanied by Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” blast up at glowing centipedes. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” stomps away as Donkey Kong rolls and hurls his digital barrels toward the Arcaders.

Go Guts
When he meets Violet’s son Matty, Brenner sarcastically contrasts eighties and contemporary video game experiences. I’m paraphrasing here: “We used to leave the house and go to these things called arcades. We got together and had fun.”

What an apt statement for today’s tech-enslaved youth . . . and adults. Pixels, for all its absurdity, encourages viewers to get together and get silly.

In the eighties, our parents didn’t enroll us in a dozen different activities. We had to invent our own fun within the confines of our neighbofrhoods. And we didn’t have Rotten Tomatoes telling us whether or not we should like a film. All we had were our own guts, and with Pixels, my gut tells me I want to play again.

Douglas J. Ogurek *****

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