Pixels - Review: Fun but far from a gaming classic

share to other networks share to twitter share to facebook
Pixels - Review: Fun but far from a gaming classic

Why do so many films based on video games fail? They’re spoilt with lavish and detailed existing worlds with well-developed characters. Not to mention the existing awareness and fan base of an established intellectual property. So why do so many result in a swift game over with no continue? Mainly because those involved make the mistake of thinking their source material is “just a game”. Games have rich and often extensive stories and plots to rival even leading film and television shows; a game plot twist can leave you as broken as any sudden death in Westeros. When you try to cut and compress that into a 96-minute medium budget action outing, it’s only going to end in disappointment. Yet several past efforts have shown it is entirely possible to make a good and even great film about the gaming world itself. Whether it’s classics like Tron or more recent successes like Wreck-It Ralph, augmenting the realities of gaming and actual worlds is a great source of entertaining material. Next up to take a retro swing at the plate is Pixels with an “arcade-ic” invasion that threatens to destroy the world. It may not be a critical high score but it is frequently fun with good retro charms.

After misinterpreting the contents of a 1982 NASA probe, an alien race threatens to wipe out Human life using real life versions of classic arcade games such as Pac Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong. Earth’s only hope for survival becomes the former gaming world champions of Sam (Adam Sandler – Happy Gillmore, Blended), Ludlow (Josh Gad – Frozen, The Wedding Ringer), Eddie (Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and President of the United States, William (Kevin James – The King of Queens, Paul Bart: Mall Cop).

The biggest obstacle Pixels was always going to have was to sell its concept in a plausible fashion and unsurprisingly this is where it struggles, but like many other parts of the film it still manages to find some good humour out of it. The initial attacks/games feel very haphazard but placing Adam Sandler in a White House situation room, trying to convince security chiefs (all while a grizzled Brian Cox suggests hilariously bombing everything that’s mentioned, including Google) works very well. It immediately sets up wins and losses of the film. It’s at its best when placing its geeky lead characters in fish-out-of-water situations but less effective when everyone starts jumping on their bandwagon. Indeed, one needless swanky ball sequence shows that up best as well slowly things down worse than '80's loading times. At the same time, while you’ll spent most of the film wondering how Kevin James ever got elected president, setting Sandler’s Sam up as his childhood (and present day) is highly-effective in the opportunities for contrasting laughs at their inequality. Some humour, however, is too low spec for its own good. A trip to London was always going to involve heavy English stereotyping, but most of it comes at no comedic gain. Instead, there’s been an executive decision that everyone talks like they’re in Marry Poppins! They even crank out Sean Bean who does his best to delivery is typical growling army badass on a PG-13 rating (and following from Jupiter Ascending, for the 2nd film this year he doesn’t die!).

click to enlarge

However, they real stars of Pixels are the game characters themselves and how the film works them into real world settings. With the aliens sportsman-like desire to compete in a series of pitched battles/contests, it provides several clever and visually impressive action sequences, the best of which by far is playing Pac Man in New York with the city street & block layout nicely mirroring the classic game map. By placing our geeky heroes in Mini Coppers as the opposing ghosts, (complete with the original names of Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde on the licence plates) it allows for some fast and frantic car chase elements. This also reminds us that Christopher Columbus (Harry Potter 1&2) is at the helm and clearly the film has benefitted from his direction. By contrast, the climatic Donkey Kong showdown, despite also being fun, just doesn’t thrill the same for being entirely staged inside the alien mother ship. The final act invasion free-for-all also delivers bucket loads of familiar shapes and faces wreaking background destruction. Some of classics are used in really smart ways, like Tetris blocks filling in building gaps to collapse their levels, or Frogger splatting cars rather than the other way round. Sadly, some are dorky or even downright annoying. The worst offender is Q*Bert as once arriving gets dragged through every scene as a supporting cast member that you’ll actually be praying gets beaten to death with a sock full of quarters. They also take things way too far with Ludlow’s Lady Lisa fantasy coming to life (a beautiful female character from 1982's Dojo Quest, played by the equally stunning Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars). While it’s certainly something that the Lara Croft generation can relate to, it sees the film deleting its own rules of physics for no apparent reason.

The biggest glitches on show are sadly the human cast. Yes, they all get some amusing jokes and lines in (Sandler’s remark about geeks being the best kissers is his best in a long time) but the characters are so hollow that we can’t see them as anything but the typecast actors playing them. Adam Sandler could just easily be anyone from his last dozen movies; a nice but downbeat wise cracker. Just as his buddy Kevin James (it’s a small wonder Chris Rock and David Spade don’t show up) is the awkward big guy delivering physical laughs. Josh Gad shouts so much you’ll think he’s gone deaf and even the mighty Tyrion Lanister himself comes across poorly for his absolutely ridiculous accent. The one standout his token female lead/Sandler’s romantic interest, Michelle Monaghan’s (Source Code, True Detective) Violet. She actually manages some degree of emotion out of her weekly written character in her introductory meeting and unlike the boys actually feels like an original creation. Elsewhere, look out for cameos by Dan Aykroyd and even the real Pac Man creator, Toru Iwatani, as an arcade repairman.

So what we have here is essentially a weaker film with enough redeeming qualities to make it watchable, and even somewhat enjoyable. It many ways, it feels comparable to Zack Synder’s Sucker Punch by delivering a handful of great interspaced set pieces but with too much weaker material around them. If you’re not looking for anything too serious, you’ll probably walk out smiling and it’s certainly better than the recent busts of Fantastic Four and Terminator Genisys. But if you want neural stimulation, this film is far too 8-bit for your high specs. It’s an Adam Sandler comedy does Independence Day, and the result is just as good and bad as that sounds. It may even deserve a second level.


For more articles like this, take a look at our Fantasy & Science Fiction and Reviews page.