Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Film Review: Pixels

Image credit: IMDB
Loud; brash; subtle-as-a-sledgehammer: 1980s arcade games. And, to be fair, "Pixels", the Adam Sandler movie. If, like me, you grew up on classic video games (not Halo or Call of Duty) like Defender, Pac-Man and so on, then you'll enjoy this film.  The content is 1980s video games, made larger-than-life and blasted all over the planet, and the style is also very much 1980s video games.
The story is full of all the clich├ęd characters, including - the cluster of nerds, the "snobby" love interest, the British military officer, the cannon fodder, the wizened old general who represents "the way things have always been done" and who doesn't get this new-fangled technology.  The film even goes so far as to actively introduce them.  For example, the Adam Sandler character, Brenner, is a nerd herder in the style of Chuck Bartowski, but lacking any of Chuck's charisma:

"Hello.  I am a nerd from the Nerd Brigade.  Here to nerd out on all your audio and visual needs."
"Do you have to say that every time you turn up at a house?"
"If I want to get paid, yes."
"Isn't that kind of demeaning?"
"Only if someone brings it up."

The love interest is in the form of one of Brenner's customers, Violet Van Patten, who - it transpires - is also a senior officer in the US army.  She doesn't fully understand 1980s computer games, but she is prepared to go along with him anyway - eventually.  There isn't much plot or character development to speak of: this is basically a Hollywood mash-up of the best computer games of the 80s exploded into the real world, and viewers will watch in order to identify all the old games blasted across the big screen, and to get all the references.  The story that supports the video-gaming roadshow is very straightforward:  arcade game experts (rendered as has-beens, with the exception of the President of the US - who for his part is inept at his job and can't read or count properly) take on a bunch of aliens who misunderstood 1980s video game footage as a declaration of war and have decided to retaliate.  Or start a war.  Their motivation is a little unclear. 

Anyways, after the declaration of war, the arcade experts have to outgeek the aliens, and in so doing, become recognised as national - no, global - heroes.  After all, all geeks are actually really sensible people who just want their chance at success and fame, even if it takes interstellar war to achieve.  In the real world, playing arcade games probably won't make you famous, but this is Hollywood, and hey, it's harmless enough fun to try and be the best at the latest version of electronic entertainment on the off-chance you might get recognised in the wider world for it.  (Back in the 1980s, the way to get famous with electronic entertaionment was by was high-scoring on video games; nowadays it's blogs, social media or YouTube channels.  Like and subscribe, folks ;-) ).

The unprepared humans, their hardware and buildings get beaten into cubic pixels by the first few waves of alien attacks - Galaga and Breakout - but get their act together and start repelling the next attack in the form of Centipede.  The nerds have been training the regular military, but this approach is not working, and Brenner has to take a light cannon and show the army how it's done.  He tells his friend Ludlow to join him in defending the planet, but the army refuse to give weapons to civilians.  Violet refers the question to the President:

Violet:  "Mr President?"
President:  "Let the nerds take over."
Violet (to the General): "Let the nerds take over!"

And they do.  The Centipede scene is where the film got my attention - after all, nobody has ever previously taken 2D sprites and made them several hundred feet tall, close up and in full glorious HD colour and in 3D.  The humans have weapons that are basically real-world equivalents of the weapons in the original games, and the nerds acquit themselves well (who knew that they were practising for this all those years ago in the arcades every weekend).
The rest of the film is a series of games played in various cities - the Pacman in New York is a highlight for me - with the establishment giving them increasing support, and the love interest slowly warming to our hero.  As the situation with the aliens escalates, our heroes face greater challenges and receive greater adulation from the rest of the world.  Are you ready for Level 2?

I have to say that the treatment of women in this movie is a reflection of the treatment of women in 1980s computer games:  arcade games then were predominantly played by boys, and the characters in the games were almost always men. There are two main female characters:  Brenner's love interest, Lt Colonel Violet Van Patten (who we first meet having an emotional breakdown in her wardrobe), a senior military advisor to the president (played straight-laced but fragile), and later we also meet the love interest for Ludlow (one of Brenner's friends, played by Josh Gad).  Ludlow has been fantasising about a female character from one of the 1980s games, named "Lady Lucy".  Lady Lucy wears a revealing, bright red costume and wields two swords.  Sadly, I think she only wields two lines of dialogue in the whole film, too; this may be the 21st century, but the source material is definitely late 20th.


Image credit: Pixel Dynamo
There are a few twists in the plot along the way - one of the nerds is exposed as a cheat - but as I said earlier, you're probably not going to watch this film for the main plot points (there are some, and they carry the story along well in between the various battles).  You'll be watching for the special effects; the re-interpretation of classic computer games on a huge scale.  Think Independence Day but with lasers on both sides.  

Pixels is a lot of fun - I honestly enjoy watching it, (the flaws in the film and the chronic stereotyping only really occurred to me after a few viewings) but watch it most for the visuals and to try and spot some more arcade game references.  If you're looking for a more thoughtful treatment of retro arcade games (and, to be fair, you probably won't find one that's less thoughtful), then I can recommend reading Ready Player One (there's a film in planning) or Armada by Ernest Cline, or even the Disney movie Wreck-It RalphRalph may not be any more intelligent, but it's more sensitive and has a moral that isn't "One day, playing computer games might save the planet and get you the girl", which is mostly what we have here.  I like Pixels - it's in-your-face, loud, bright and brash - but it could've been much better if it had been slightly more intelligently written.

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