Film Review: Pixels (PG, USA, 2015)

Pixels is not your usual alien invasion fare type film. It’s also not your usual Adam Sandler type film. And it’s also not your usual family type film either. You would think that being unusual would work in its favour but sadly it doesn’t. What this film does have is some funny moments, some really amazing visuals and if you lower your expectations enough you might be able to have a good time.

So there’s an alien invasion where all the aliens take the form of 1980’s video game characters and the only people who can save the day are a bunch of rag tag guys in their 40’s who used to be whizz kids at playing those arcade games. There’s Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) who as a teen determined the patterns used in arcade games and was a real pro at playing but now as an adult works a dead-end job installing home theatre systems for people less nerdy than he is. His childhood best friend Will Cooper (Kevin James) fared better, somehow inexplicably becoming the President. Their other friend Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) grew up to be a crazy conspiracy theorist whose theories may not be entirely crazy. Then there’s Eddie “the Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), Brenner’s “sort of” nemesis and the one guy who beat him at Donkey Kong all those years ago. Lt Col Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) is basically the only female presence worth noting in the film and even then her role is negligible as she assists the team and plays Brenner’s romantic interest.

The script concocted by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling is ridiculous and it’s actually explained all too clearly to the audience within the first 20 minutes. And even if you’re not a retro gamer nerd they even explain some of the objectives just to make sure you don’t miss a beat. But the ridiculousness doesn’t stop there, Kevin James’ turn as President Cooper is unbelievable, farfetched and never explained how he got to be in power. The comedy gags for him seem to fall flat and are at times awkward. A guy whose only good trait was playing those claw games ends up President? Riiiiiiiiight. To add to things unexplained is how they managed to make Sandler and Monaghan’s characters have a relationship. Their chemistry is unbelievable, un-relatable and just awkward. Sandler appears to be disinterested in the script, his performance being boring and dry. This makes for a change from his OTT or obnoxious characters he generally tends to play, and to be honest it might have been better if he had played that card. But that was clearly passed over to Peter Dinklage with his sleeveless shirt wearing, sunglass sporting and mullet adorned Plant. According to director Chris Columbus he based him off a number of real life arcade game champions including Billy Mitchell, Patrick Scott Patterson, Ken House and Richie Knucklez. Yet none of that explains why he had to be portrayed by a person of short stature? That role could’ve been played by anybody else but they went with Dinklage, why? There’s also the complete lack of female characters, which does lend a sexist tone to the film. Monaghan’s character is smart enough to build the light cannon weapons used to destroy the aliens, but gets relegated to love interest once her genius is no longer required. And the fact that comedic talent Jane Krakowski is shafted to playing the First Lady and barely has any dialogue is a travesty. And then there’s the Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson) game character, all cleavage and long blonde locks and doesn’t even say a single word. All the controversy lately with Gamergate has cast a shadow over the inclusivity of the gaming world and whether it can overcome its “boys club” roots and this film definitely doesn’t help that cause. Then lastly of course there’s the fact that the original film also titled Pixels by Patrick Jean on which this is based is basically ripped off in the last climactic battle scene almost shot for shot. If I was Jean I’d feel a little hard done by and hope that I’d got suitably remunerated.

All of that being said and if you can leave it aside (a big ask), the film does have its funny moments. Almost all of which belong to Josh Gad and his crackpot portrayal of Lamonsoff. Honestly he is the funniest thing in this film, delivers some of the best laugh out loud unexpected moments and he manages to redeem it in some parts when it looks like it’s falling over completely. Also as you would’ve seen from the trailer the visuals are pretty incredible. And misnomer technicalities aside, since “pixels” actually mean things in two dimension and “voxels” is actually three dimension, the little cubes of colour that make up all the arcade game character aliens really are beautiful and seeing it in 3D actually adds to that textural experience. To add to the trip down nostalgia lane there’s a wonderfully kitschy dorky soundtrack comprising of some great 80’s tunes to keep you chair dancing, including Cheap Trick, Zapp, Loverboy, Spandau Ballet and Queen + VonLichten so that at least helps to add to the ‘fun’ factor.

I didn’t feel like Pixels was quite as bad as many critics have made it out to be. This probably was due to the fact that I’d gone into the film having lowered my expectations. I also didn’t feel like this portrayal was a kick in the guts like others did who may have felt more connected to those games, since I’m nostalgic for but not emotionally invested in the arcades of decades past. It has its fun moments, and it does an OK job of being entertaining on occasion but at the end of the day it’s still disappointing because the premise and trailer looked and sounded great but the execution clearly failed.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 106 minutes

Pixels is screening in Australian cinemas from 10 September 2015 through Sony Pictures Australia