Film Review: Pixels (2015)

Pixels is marketed as an action/comedy/sci-fi movie. The trouble is, it’s got intermittent action, precious little comedy, and the science fiction is restricted to zap guns and video game monsters from space.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays Byrne, Mad Max Fury Road) would summarise the movie thus: Mediocre.

In fact, if you want to save yourself the cost of a movie ticket and almost two hours of your life, you could do much worse than to just watch the three minute short the movie is based on. The visual effects are effectively identical and the music over the end credits is actually a great homage to 80s video games music. Here though, Henry Jackman (who did a great job with X-Men: First Class) has written a score that’s virtually indistinguishable from any other recent action flick. There’s the requisite use of horns to signal danger, violins at the exciting bits, and other instruments sprinkled through. It’s actually dull.

The movie fairs no better; the best bits are in the trailer. Director Chris Columbus has always been a workman-like director and it would seem he’s done the best he can with the material. The fault, ultimately lies with the story.

Pixels has some major issues from the get go.

Let’s start with the audience.

If the movie is aimed at children, what’s Ludlow (Josh Gad) doing humping the stage during a presidential function and referring to soldiers as “women baby people”, “girl maggots” and one as a “beautiful Nubian man”? What’s with Eddie (Peter Dinklage) and his misogyny? The one child character who might act as an audience surrogate (Matty, played by Matt Lintz, son of Michelle Monaghan‘s Major Violet Van Patten) gets all of five minutes screen time, and only exists to tell Adam Sandler‘s character to get over his childhood woes and grow the hell up.

And what will any of the 1980s pop cultural references actually mean to kids under ten? Writers Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling have stuffed in everything they can, and while perhaps some of the video game characters are recognisable across the generations, frankly, Fantasy Island and Max Headroom will likely be meaningless to anyone under the age of twenty. In addition, there’s a laziness to the inclusion of some of these characters; the writers can’t even be consistent with this part of the storyline. The space probe that starts the mess is sent out in 1982; Max didn’t premier until ’84.pixels poster

So let’s assume then that Pixels is intended for an adult audience (though you try telling that to all the kids in the theatre during the preview screening). If that’s the case, there’s precious little plot, comedy or action to keep an adult engaged. The only marginally interesting set-piece – the Pacman car chase – is bookended by clumsy video game references, poorly drawn characters, absent humour (see Josh Gad’s character) and dialogue that a year eight teacher would mark as poor. Indeed, the introduction of the young characters to one another makes Star Wars (of which Harrison Ford famously remarked “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it”) look like high art.

The next problem is the story itself, which depends on four tropes.

First, the whole thing relies on the Aliens Steal Cable trope, where our presence is announced in this case by a NASA space probe (See also Star Trek the Motion Picture and Starman).

Then there’s Space Nazis, where the space aliens have arrived to take over our world (see Starship Troopers and Battle L.A.).

The Military is Useless trope then takes over, where conventional weapons are useless against the invading force. Enter our heroes, the video gamers of the 1980s.

From here there’s endless nerd/geek tropes, which are neither funny nor complementary. The writers have taken every stereotype and used them to point and laugh at nerds and geeks, despite the entire movie depending on them to save the planet.

And yet, all this would be fine if the story actually functioned properly. Instead, plot is unexpectedly thrust at the viewer like a cat holding a dead bird in its mouth.

Take for example the moment Brenner (Adam Sandler) barges into the White House tactical operations room during the crisis and progresses to lecture and insult the collected military leaders of the country and by default, his friend, President Cooper (Kevin James).

Then there’s Ludlow who is able to magically hack into military computers to further ram home the point that the world is being attacked by video game creatures from space.

Later, Matty confronts Eddie about the cheat codes he has engraved on his sunglasses, a task which would logically be undertaken by someone a bit more official, such as – for example – the president of the United States, who later somehow gives his Secret Service bodyguards the slip by sticking a Chewbacca mask on to join the trio of Brenner, Ludlow and Major Violet for a final fight against the bad guys.

And it’s the characters who are supposed to help drive the plot forward, so it’s a pity they’re so terribly one dimensional.

Brenner is a failed video gamer who took a loss to heart and has been a no-hoper since 1982. But his friend President Cooper has always said he’ll rise above and become someone better. He’s one part wise man, one part comedian and his skill-set is the only thing that makes him remotely useful in the movie, and that’s only at two points: during the Centipede battle and the final Donkey Kong boss fight, and even then it takes a twelve year old to get him to pull his finger out and stop acting like a baby.

Ludlow is an abusive parody of every Nerd and Geek stereotype in existence; think Kevin Smith in Die Hard 4 and subtract anything that made the character compelling, interesting or knowledgeable. Ludlow name-checks notorious trolls 4Chan, then government monitoring as if to confirm his geek credentials. Then for some bizarre reason yells at everyone in a British pub about a secret pyramid under the Hoover Dam. There’s no context for his behaviour, no logic. It’s like the writers read about people who have difficulty relating to others, and thought they’d take that to a completely bizarre extreme. He slaps the backside of Navy SEALS as they learn video gaming and screams at his grandmother and at the soldiers like he’s a psychotic drill sergeant. And not a single one of these behavioural quirks elicits the slightest bit of humour.

Peter Dinklage’s Eddie is far from his Game of Thrones character, a nasty, self-centred creep. Tyrion loves and respects women while Eddie is a misogynist, lusting after Serena Williams and Martha Stewart, and demands to meet them in the White House for a sexual tryst as a condition of helping in the fight against the aliens. Where Tyrion is honourable, Eddie cheats his way to victory. And all this would be fine if – again – the story supported his behaviour. But it doesn’t. He arrives out of nowhere at the beginning, then serves two functions: to make Brenner a loser, then at the end, a winner.

President Cooper is a childhood friend of Brenner, with such blatant parallels to President Bush Junior, they might as well have called him President Hedge. His role is to arm the heroes and not a single part of his story, from having marital issues at the beginning, to being “leader of the free world”, makes one iota of difference to the story as a whole. The editors could easily have cut him and given everyone twenty minutes of their lives back. But if they started there, they might as well finish the job by removing everything else that doesn’t serve the story.

Major Violet Van Patten is an intelligent professional working for DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) and manages to create the zap guns used throughout the movie. Unfortunately though, she’s cast in the same mould as Uhura (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek reboot) and Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spiderman) as an unprofessional bundle of emotion, veering from crying in a cupboard with a bottle of wine, to sniping at Brenner at inappropriate moments. But  refusing Brenner’s sexual advances results in, irony of ironies, Brenner calling her names to disempower her. And the “B” Characters are just as bad.

If this movie was made in the late 1980s then maybe, just maybe, it might have passed muster; if you squinted enough it might be unfavourably compared to Revenge of the Nerds. As it is, Pixels is an underwhelming, unfunny, bizarre mishmash of poorly executed ideas and characterisations. The only funny thing about it is that the effects manage – even with the addition of millions of dollars and 3D glasses – to somehow look identical to those in the original short film.

Pixels is in cinemas from 10th September through Sony Pictures.

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