Monday, July 27, 2015
“Pixels” is not “Citizen Kane.” Neither is it “cinematic chlamydia.”
It’s a movie with two target audiences: young boys and Gen X’ers who grew up on Atari and arcade games. I heard a group of ten-year-olds talking as they left the theater. One called it the best movie ever; another said it was “pretty amazing.” When I was their age, I had a subscription to Electronic Games magazine and read it cover to cover. Feel free to indulge your antipathy toward Adam Sandler (I have none, though I’m not going full Armond White over him either), but you can’t deny that “Pixels” stays faithful to the premises and characters of those early 80s games. The opening and closing credits ooze love.
The plot posits Kevin James as U.S. President Will Cooper (that can’t be much nuttier than some of the fruitcakes running on both sides). Sandler is his bestie, D.C. tech installer Sam Brenner, and Josh Gad is conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff. As kids, they were competitive gamers (in Will’s case, the mechanical claw), with Sam losing the ’82 Donkey Kong championship to the gratingly self-aggrandizing Eddie “Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage). A video of that tourney was shot into space as part of a time capsule and now aliens, misinterpreting it as a declaration of war, start sending down pixelated versions of Galaga, Centipede, Pac Man and you-know-who to conquer Earth.
Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) attempts to take control of the government’s military response. She’s thwarted by Sam, who met her as a private citizen when her son called him to set up the many cool gadgets he got for his parents’ divorce. Monaghan and Sandler share a classically funny love-hate byplay. Gad flexes the comic muscles he showed in “The Wedding Ringer” earlier this year, and Dinklage has an effective running gag involving his fantasy three-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. While it produces more chuckles than guffaws, there is humor to be found in a situation where established protocols give way to suddenly life-and-death stakes.
The high definition and high fidelity of the game scenes themselves evoke warmly nostalgic feelings. It’s awesome to see the airborne mushrooms of Centipede, the force field of Galaga, the Mini Cooper “ghosts” that chase Pac-Man through the city, the ape whose stomps produce the uneven scaffolding of Donkey Kong. Here’s a movie that knows when you shoot the centipede’s body instead of its head, it just divides. Knows the patterns and strategies and scores of every game in the arcade. There’s a fair amount of juvenile material to scoff at if you so desire, but for those of us who spent countless hours and quarters on Asteroids and Defender and Frogger, "Pixels" is lovely and true.