09242017Headline:

“Pixels” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux pixels-poster

Three underdogs and the President of the United States attempt to save the world in “Pixels,” an enjoyable nostalgic romp from director Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) aimed squarely at Gen Xers.

You may ask yourself what these four people could possibly have in common. Well, they were all arcade freaks back at the dawn of video games in the early 1980’s. Our story begins with best friends Sam and Will, who just can’t get enough of video games and spend all of their free time in arcades. Sam is really good at many of the games; in fact no one can touch him when it comes to “Pac-Man” or “Galaga.” Will, on the other hand, learns to excel at claw machines since he usually gets knocked out of the games early on. They even have a little kid named Ludlow tagging along with them, but he’s more interested in playing the offbeat “Lady Lisa,” just because its digital protagonist is so darn beautiful. When the video game championships arrive in 1982, Sam manages to get to the finals where he must face off against the diminutive Eddie “Fire Blaster” Plant in “Donkey Kong.”Donkey Kong in Columbia Pictures' PIXELS.

I won’t divulge who wins here (even though we find out in the first ten minutes). It’s relatively unimportant at this stage to do so. What is important is that coinciding with the 1982 championships, NASA released a VHS time capsule into space, showcasing these great games and a whole bunch of eighties icons. Fast forward over thirty years into the future and Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) and Will Cooper (Kevin James) remain close, only their lives just happened to go in completely different directions. While Sam is making a living installing people’s audio/visual equipment in the suburbs of Washington D.C., Will just happens to be the President of the United States!

While at the home of his latest customer, the recently-divorced Violet Van Patten (Michele Monaghan), Sam and Violet both get summoned to the White House (She’s actually a Lieutenant Colonel in the special weapons division of the Army). There seems to be a threat to the security of the United States and its citizens. As you may have guessed, that time capsule was intercepted by an unknown intergalactic entity who misconstrues the tape as a declaration of war! Furthermore, the assailants have decided to attack Earth with larger-than-life renderings of classic video games. So naturally the president surmises that none of the four branches of the U.S. military will be able to defeat this foe. No, the only hope at salvation is to get the 1982 squad back together! It doesn’t take long to find Ludlow (Josh Gad), a conspiracy theorist who actually finds them by hiding out in Brenner’s van. And even though Eddie (Peter Dinklage) is currently doing time in prison, President Cooper promises him a full pardon if he helps them defeat these digital imposters. Heck, even President Cooper leaves the oval office for this fight. Can this unlikely foursome put their gaming skills to use in a real world showdown where all of Earth’s creatures hang in the balance? “Pixels” co-stars Brian Cox and Sean Bean as a couple of military advisors who aren’t that keen on leaving the planet’s welfare to Cooper’s motley crew.

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There are definitely some hits and misses in this mindless block of pure escapism. Each time the Earth is about to come under attack, an emergency broadcast system-like warning interrupts all video feeds and Earth is hilariously warned of impending doom by ‘80’s era icons such as Hall & Oates, Madonna, and Max Headroom (because, honestly, where would he even exist outside of the ‘80’s?). The leads have chemistry enough with one another, but I have to address one huge misfire. Josh Gad, while initially funny, quickly morphs into the most annoying characterization that I’ve personally witnessed since Dave Franco’s portrayal of a mildly retarded man in “Unfinished Business.” Gad’s performance is essentially an exercise in excess. A little tug on the reins by Columbus and it may have turned out fine. And while I’m a huge fan of Dinklage, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his character. Jarring enough was the younger actor who played Eddie in 1982 speaking in a pseudo-German accent, when Dinklage takes over the role he speaks as if Barry White was attempting a southern drawl!

Obviously we’ve come a long way since Sandler’s breakout performances in such ‘90’s classics as “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” since he is basically the film’s “straight man” to the rest of these characters. Hardcore Sandler fans need not worry as he still manages to provide laughs as well as exhibit some romantic chemistry with co-star Michele Monaghan. The digital effects, as expected, are simply amazing. The rendering of arcade legends such as “Pac-Man,” “Donkey Kong,” and “Q-Bert” (the latter being another area where less would have been more) is right on target. The film’s highlight is the Pac-Man scene, where our heroes take control of Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde in the form of color-coded cars and chase the three dimensional yellow pie through the streets of New York, but oh watch out for those hidden power pellets! Also worth noting is the scene where “Centipede” attacks at a military base in England, and Sam and Ludlow get to teach the soldiers a thing or two about fighting digital aliens.Pixels-2015-Movie-Photos

This movie, while marginally funny, was fully-entertaining. It spoke to my childhood, exhibiting a refreshing air of nostalgia for countless forms of entertainment that I remembered so well. There’s a great scene in the film when Sam plays a modern video game with Violet’s son Matty. Sam explains that he won all those games back in the day by memorizing patterns. Asking Matty how he fares so well in his modernized, violent video games, the child replies that he “just tries to not get killed.” In essence, “Pixels” brings us back to a simpler time where the games were actually much harder, yet we were more closely united with friends that we could play alongside rather than faceless challengers on the other side of an internet connection. Although this is clearly a tribute to retro gaming, viewers of any era should enjoy this visually striking buddy-film meets sci-fi comedy.

**1/2 (two and a half out of four stars)

 

 

 

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