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Non-Review Review: Pixels

Pixels has a fun concept.

The idea of video game characters invading the world is a delightfully gonzo piece of pop culture nostalgia. It is easy to see why Sony picked up the option for Patrick Jean’s 2010 short film, even if the concept was not new. Neither version of Pixels can quite measure up to Raiders of the Lost Arcade, the short that aired as part of Anthology of Interest II during the third season of Futurama. That ten minute short story captured the sheer unadulterated joy of a world under siege from its juvenile obsessions.

You are my sunshine...

You are my sunshine…

There are a lot of problems with Pixels. The most obvious is that it seems completely disinterested in its core concept as anything other than a vehicle for Adam Sandler. There is a lot of CGI and a number of recognisable pop culture references, but Pixels plays just like any other Happy Madison vehicle. It is an excuse to pair Adam Sandler up with a beautiful actress and pay for trips for friends and acquaintances around the world while making jokes that were tired when most of the audience was making them in the playground.

Pixels never embraces the goofy joy of an invasion of eighties video games, instead wallowing in the presence of washed up nineties hackery.

All the President's... People.

All the President’s… People.

Nostalgia pervades Pixels, just as much as it pervades Jurassic World or Terminator Genesys. Nostalgia takes quite a few different forms. After all, one wonders how many members of the target audience will appreciate a cameo appearance from literal talking head Max Headroom. Similarly, it feels weird to have Adam Sandler lecture the token child character about how arcade gaming was a much more “sociable” activity than the modern equivalent, ignoring the possibility of internet gaming or cooperative play.

The soundtrack blares classic hit after classic hit, pumping out eighties music like it is going out of style. We Will Rock You bookends the film, playing in both the opening sequence and at the climax. The opening takes place in a summer of 1982 that looks like it came from one of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” advertisements. Characters joke about marrying Olivia Newton John or Samantha Fox. Aliens take the form of Madonna and Ricardo Montalban to administer threats to mankind.

Space invaders...

Space invaders…

Nostalgia is the name of the game here, although it also extends to events more recent. Films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation have been wary and cynical of the Obama White House, but Pixels is perhaps the biggest release to be openly nostalgic for the Bush era. Kevin James is cast in the role of the President, and he is played very much in the style of George W. Bush. Pixels is hardly subtle on the point. As played by Kevin James, the version of the President presented here seems like the image that Karl Rove wanted to broadcast to America.

The President is a down-to-earth nice guy beset by all sort of crazy problems like low popularity ratings. Nevertheless, he is a fundamentally decent guy, and the film suggests that he is picked upon for the media because he is not educated or refined. At one White House press conference, a journalist attempts to humiliate the Commander in Chief by stringing together a host of long words; the President (and the rest of the press corps) respond like a bunch of frat boys picking on a nerd.

It's on like Donkey Kong...

It’s on like Donkey Kong…

Indeed, the actor’s very first scene features a riff on that scene of Bush reading a children’s book when being informed of 9/11; he stumbles over words, making it clear that he may not be the most eloquent individual to hold office. Nevertheless, he enjoys a meaningful relationship with Great Britain, an aggressive foreign policy, and his disappointing polling numbers receive a boost from a series of high-profile attacks that result from eighties chickens coming home to roost. He is the President you’d most like to have a beer with, even if he shouldn’t be drinking.

There is something very reactive and unpleasant about the politics underpinning Pixels. It is an incredibly regressive piece of work. Consider, for example, the recurring “gay panic” jokes surrounding the latent homosexuality of Josh Gad’s supporting character. Prone to wander around slapping military men on (both) their butt cheeks and to go in for an inappropriate kiss on the lips with his (male) best friend, the character feels like a character who escaped from what would pass as a late nineties comedy.

Game on...

Game on…

Never mind the film’s gender politics. The film pairs Adam Sandler with Michelle Monaghan, who is criminally underused in a supporting role. Monaghan’s character is a professional who is going through a messy divorce; she reacts uncomfortably when Sandler’s character tries to kiss her. The movie immediately (and repeatedly) suggests that this is because she is a snob; inevitably, she overcomes it. At the climax of the film, another character is afforded what is literally a “trophy” wife for his part in the climax; another gets to fulfil his sexual fantasy.

All of this feels decidedly uncomfortable. There is a sense that the script to Pixels was cobbled together from jokes that might have been funny when the actors where twelve. The character of Q*bert is introduced in a supporting capacity; it is a great idea, because those sorts of lovable CGI characters who communicate through sound effects can hark back to slapstick or silent cinema. Instead, the character becomes a vehicle for jokes about urination. Pixels is a film that thinks it is funny to have Q*bert say, “bullcrap.”

The streets are Pac'ed...

The streets are Pac’ed…

The film’s sense of humour is awkward and overstated. None of the jokes given to Josh Gad are funny, but all of them are overplayed. The rhythm to the joke feels odd, with the actor either providing too much context or repeating the punchline in case the audience missed it. At one point, he explains that the conspirators are after him because the Zapruder film was edited because Kennedy shot first. It is not a funny joke to begin with, but the rhythm of Gad’s delivery is all wrong.

Later on, he compares a bunch of assembled marines to the cast of Magic Mike, before continuing, “Are you going to fight or dance around naked?” It was not a funny joke when he made it in the line immediately prior to the rhetorical question, so restating it to emphasise that the movie Magic Mike features men who dance around naked is redundant. It was never funny, but now it is laboured and unfunny. A lot of Pixels feels this way, with the movie reaching for the most obvious joke and then hitting it again and again.

A commanding presence?

A commanding presence?

At the same time, there are interesting aspects of the film. The rendering of the video game characters is fascinating, with the character created through meticulously rendered cubes that approximate the effect of pixelation. There are even a couple of brief moments that are almost impressive. The image of giant hungry PacMan confronting our heroes is almost haunting, as his creator reaches out to touch the giant glowing yellow smiley face. It is an image that suggests a much more adventurous and surreal film than the audience ultimately receives.

However, even this storytelling device feels lazy and haphazard. While all the licensed characters like Mario or Donkey Kong are rendered in blurry pictures, the film makes sure that the sexy video game women are rendered as close to life-like as possible. Apparently the film is not willing to follow its own logic to a conclusion, suggesting a hook-up between one of the primary characters and a collection of reformed cubes that plays like a sequence that escaped from Oscar Isaac’s imagination in Ex Machina.

All fired up...

All fired up…

As is increasingly the norm in films like this, Pixels features all sorts of massive destruction in major metropolitan centres. Any large-scale urban destruction (particularly in American cinema) will inevitably evoke 9/11, but it is interesting that Pixels credits this truly epic destruction to figures escaped from childhood fantasy. It is almost too much to credit Pixels as an examination of the damage that results from the infantalisation of popular culture and the attempt to arrest development at a mental age of twelve, but it does suggest some interesting ideas.

Then again, it is perhaps an illustration of how uncomfortable Pixels is with its relationship to nerd culture. The geeky themes of the film are very much at odds with the cooler “jock” humour. It never seems entirely clear whether Pixels is trying to laugh at or with certain segments of nerd culture, with the movie frequently treating Kevin James and Adam Sandler as cool kids who just happen to like eighties video games; playing the same broad jokes that one migth expect from Grown Ups or Welcome to the Jungle.

Pixels is a mess.

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8 Responses

  1. Oh great, a movie expressing nostalgia for America’s worst president, George Bush. What’s next? A glowing portrayal of Andrew Johnson.

    • Yep. It’s very, very strange.

      • By the way I really enjoy your Star Trek reviews. The fact that you get into the historical context, the making of the episode, and your personal thoughts makes each review very rewarding. Do you know when there will be more of these Star Trek reviews. Thank you for all your hard work.

      • No worries. Thank you for the kind words.

        So, what I can definitely promise Star Trek wise: the third season of Enterprise reviews definitely kick off Monday (6pm BST) and run through August. I know because they are all written and scheduled.

        What I anticipate, with a giant asterix: the fourth season of DS9 and the second season of Voyager should run towards the end of the year, covering either September/October or November/December. They are half-written at this point.

        I haven’t started on the fourth season of Enterprise, but that should be December or January.

        There is a potential kink along the way. There is some stuff coming up that I might have to commit to that would force me to push those last few things out a bit. The stuff I’m possibly working on would have a deadline of January 2016, so you can probably guess what it might be related to. (Of course, it might not happen at all and all may unfold to plan.)

      • IIRC he had a warm relationship with Bush and met with him to discuss social security reform. He’s also not very big on Hamas, and was a main donor to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign after he promised to get tough on defending Israel.

        So yeah, Sandler’s a conservative comic.

      • I didn’t know the link between his support of Guliani and Guiliani’s Israel policy. Nor about the relationship with Bush. Interesting.

  2. Sandler… what is your deal?

    It’s always the same with you. Fairies and snobs. You’ve worked with gay men. You’re a member of the 1 percent. Could it be your obsession with tearing down snobs (Happy Gillmore, Mr. Deeds, That’s My Boy), is a subliminally message to your built-in fanbase to ignore the “haters” and enjoy these awful films in spite of themselves?

    I’m a nineties boy myself. Homophobia is our disease.

    True, we came of age after gay rights, but transgender people were still viewed by many as mutants. I appreciate that you tried to come to terms with this (Chuck and Larry, Zohan), but it’s starting to look like you’ll never *quite* get it out of his system. Maybe you should change the record.

    I did have a laugh at Moviebob. While he is a funny critic, he’s libertarian to the point of parody. I’ve seen him positively review franchises on the basis of making so much damn money. Seeing Pixels “made (his) soul cry”. Nice to know even the free market has its limits.

    • The Transformers franchise is the limit of my “it makes boatloads of money, so SOMEBODY must be enjoying it and good for them” philosophy. Still, I don’t begrudge the people out there who must enjoy them, even if I’m a little sore for a couple of days after the fact.

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