When my brother showed me the trailer for the new Adam Sandler movie from Director Chris Columbus, I was blown away. Aliens attack Earth with a giant version of Pac-Man and turn everything into pixels? I could't actually wait!
And it did not disappoint.
Equal parts nostalgia, tongue-in-cheek social commentary, and the kind of silliness that appeals to those of us whose formative years were between 1980 and 2000, Pixels is the most fun I've had at the movies all year, and I would gladly see it again and again. It's not the best, or the most critically acclaimed film in any sense, but it has a lot of heart, its underlying message being that we all have a part to play in the great scheme of things, and if Aliens do attack one day, it will be a collaboration of brains and brawn, nerds and tough guys, that will ultimately save us.
Spoiler Alert: So the premise is that the young Sam Brenner goes to an Arcade with his best friend, Will Cooper, in 1982, and he finds out that he has a gift for playing arcade games, seeing all the patterns in them, earning him a loyal local following. Will convinces him to go to the Championships, where he gets to the final and plays off against Eddie 'The Fireblaster' Plant, in an epic game of Donkey Kong, but is defeated after Plant points out that the game randomizes at higher levels, spoiling Sam's focus.
Fast forward to the near future, where Will (Kevin James) is now the President of the United States, albeit an unopular one, and Sam works for a company who install audio visual equipment and technology for the general public, as a 'Nerd'. It's evident that losing that game of Donkey Kong, and being called 'Second Place' by Plant, caused Sam Brenner to never try to reach his potential, a point that his best friend keeps bringing up.
He then goes to install some gadgets at a customer's house, where he meets Matty (Matt Lintz), a perceptive boy, and Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), his recently divorced and very attractive mother. After trying to console her when he finds her crying in a closet, but going a little too far with it, Sam gets a call from President Cooper to say he needs him straight away. Both Sam and Violet (who is a Lieutenant Colonel working with DARPA) race to the White House to find out that an Alien race has attacked Earth, in what appears to be a very specific 3D recreation of the 1980's game, Galaga, even down to the flight plan they use. Sam's knowledge of the patterns in those games makes him realise that the aliens found the footage of the 1982 Arcade Championships that NASA sent into space, which they considered a Declaration of War. They also use 80's footage of Madonna and other celebrities to communicate with Earth, informing us that there will be a number of battles, and that we will have to beat them in three rounds to save Earth. Their attack on Guam and the taking of a hostage puts the aliens ahead by one.
It's then up to Sam Brenner, President Cooper, and Lieutenant Colonel Van Patten, along with Sam and Will's crazy old gaming buddy and current conspiracy nut, Ludlow (Josh Gad), to work out how to fight highly advanced beings made of energy, who can reacreate disturbingly large versions of Pac-Man and Tetris at will, and who turn everything into voxels (3D pixels), with hilarious results! They even get Sam's old nemesis, World Champion Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), out of prison, to help with the war effort, much to Sam's chagrin.
Visually, the film is amazing, the 3D version good enough to make me jump out of my skin when a wall suddenly pixelated with a bang. The graphic rendering of the aliens is seemless, yet keeps a kind of classic, hazy-edged feel to it indicative of eighties video games. There's also something oddly satisfying about watching a gigantic version of Pac-Man chase Adam Sandler through the streets of New York, and seeing tough guys Sean Bean and Brian Cox look terrified as a hundred foot version of Centipede flies at them menacingly.
The cast did a great job, bringing a lot of humour, and a fair amount of realism to what is essentially a far fetched sci-fi/fantasy romp for all us classic gaming nerds out there. Although I'm not much of a Sandler fan, I did like his defeated, aging, honest geek, and the interplay between his and Monaghan's characters starts off as awkward and cringy, yet is sweet and funny enough to be believable. The way their relationship develops seems quite realistic under the circumstances. I also liked Monaghan's portrayal of Violet, who comes across at first as your average beautiful, vulnerable housewife who's been ditched by her husband for a younger woman, but then her strength shines through as it becomes clear she's tough, smart, and part of the armed forces. It's through her work that the way to defeat the Pixels is found, and eventually she dons an Arcader's suit and takes on the aliens in combat.
Kevin James plays a fairly level headed, if bumbling, President Cooper, who does a good job of keeping the other characters gounded in adulthood. Peter Dinklage is funny as the uncompromising bad boy, Eddie, who will win at any cost, and his ongoing rivalry with Brenner adds some tension to the story. Josh Gad's freaky geek, Ludlow, is completely over the top, complementing Sandler's more grounded Brenner quite nicely. It's his obsession with Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson) that forms one of the best moments in the film, where a Pixel alien wearing her form sees something in Ludlow's complete surrender to the 'woman' he loves as worthy of letting him live.
There's also a reluctance to the Pixel's attack on Earth that I find refreshing in the genre. A Pixel version of Q*Bert confirms that the Pixels were a peaceful race before they intercepted the footage from Earth. Would we not do something similar in those circumstances, if we thought someone wanted to attack us?
Overall, the film is fast paced and funny, definitely worth the watch. Just do yourself a favour and leave your inner cynic at home.