The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"PIXELS"

Pixels

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, videogames have an almost mythological quality. The experience of walking into an arcade, plunking your quarters down on a machine, and wrapping your fingers around a joystick was magical. It wasn't just because the technology was new and amazing – although it was – but also because the games themselves were so much fun. Pixels brims over with nostalgia for vintage videogames. It's an undeniably silly picture, but it's lovingly silly, which makes it go down a lot more smoothly than you'd expect.

In the 1980s, a VHS tape of the World Videogames Championship was sent into space like a message in a bottle. Decades later, aliens have discovered that tape and mistaken it for a declaration of war. They then invade Earth in the form of the characters depicted in those games. With the military largely useless under the circumstances, President of the United States Will Cooper (Kevin James) calls in his childhood pal Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), one of the two final competitors in that long-ago championship, to lead the counterattack. Brenner assembles a team consisting of his old nemesis Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) and fellow gamer Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) to help him figure out ways to defeat the attack, which comes in a variety of game-themed “levels.” Michelle Monaghan plays Violet, a military officer who also lends a hand when she's not flirting back and forth with Sam.

Pixels is jam-packed with classic videogame references. The screenplay, by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, finds rather ingenious ways to replicate those games in the real world. One of the best scenes finds the streets of New York City used as a giant Pac-Man board, with Sam and the others in tiny sports cars (which they dub “ghosts”), chasing after the legendary yellow dot-chomper. Incredibly eye-popping 3D greatly enhances the effect, especially during a sequence inspired by Centipede. Sam and Ludlow stand in a field firing special light guns upward, while massive pixelated centipede pieces come barreling straight down toward them (and the audience). The combination of old-school game imagery and modern day 3D is phenomenal, adding to the idea that these characters have jumped out of an arcade machine and into our physical space.

Adam Sandler typically makes very bad movies. The worst of them - Jack and Jill, That's My Boy, Grown Ups and its sequel – are often downright mean-spirited. They have a tendency to make jokes in which women are portrayed as stupid, gay people are the subject of ridicule, and anyone who is different (except for the schlubby man-boy hero, of course) is mocked. Pixels, in contrast, is so high-concept that there's really no room for that kind of misanthropic humor. Most of the jokes are in service of the premise, which makes it a cheerier, less abrasive Sandler movie than we usually get. More time is spent finding ways to insert clever videogame or '80s pop culture gags than insults. I have to admit laughing at the way the aliens send messages to Earth by manipulating old video footage of icons from the era. It leads to dumb-funny exchanges such as this:

Assistant: “Mr. President, we've just received a transmission from the 'Where's the beef?' lady.”
Cooper: “What did she say?”
Assistant: “Well, first she asked where the beef was...”

No one will ever regard Pixels as a sophisticated comedy, although it does offer plenty of goofy laughs just like that one. The performances are funny, too. Peter Dinklage has a ball playing the egocentric Eddie, who, after years in prison, makes some peculiar demands in exchange for helping to save the world. Brian Cox is also terrific as a war-mongering military adviser. When Sam tells a group of assembled defense leaders that the first alien attack is inspired by Galaga, Cox's character self-righteously bellows, “Well, let's bomb Galaga! Where is Galaga?” Sandler is more or less the straight-man here, but he handles the task well. At any rate, it's so much nicer to see him in this mode than doing his frequent passive-aggressive schtick.

Pixels concludes with an extended sequence in which hordes of familiar game characters do battle with humans while our heroes find themselves entering a tangible version of one of the most iconic videogames ever. Any self-respecting game freak will appreciate the intricacy of it. Director Chris Columbus keeps the movie's pace moving quickly, and his staging of the action scenes gets maximum value from the 3D. Pixels isn't the heartwarming or innovative homage that Wreck-It Ralph was. However, it puts something familiar and beloved into a new context, and it does so with a palpable, infectious sense of affection.

( out of four)


Pixels is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.


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