There’s only one way to say this: I have mixed feelings about Pixels.
Given that I only recently found out that Pixels is actually based on a two-minute short produced by OnMoreProd (and directed by Patrick Jean) on YouTube, when I first read about the feature film, I was extremely excited about the idea of an alien race attacking the planet with eighties arcade games. It’s not only an idea that’s primed for greatness (especially if it could nail the eighties era vibe), but one I wish I had had. And unlike a lot of naysayers and haters out there, I don’t have an issue with Adam Sandler. Have I liked all of his films? That would be a resounding “No!” I didn’t like Little Nicky at all, I wasn’t a fan of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan or I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and Jack & Jill was part of my top 5 worst films in 2011. But no one’s ever going to like everything, and because I like a lot of his other films, there’s always the hope that the next one will bring back what made films like Happy Gilmore so good. Add in the awkwardness of Josh Gad (who, like Will Ferrell, I tend to like more as a voice actor), the silliness of Kevin James (who can be super funny if given the right material, which as of late, hasn’t happened much), the awesomeness that is Peter Dinklage, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success, especially when you have a cook as good as Chris Columbus in control of it all.
I wasn’t disappointed — at least where the effects and action sequences are concerned. When an alien race (who we’re never given all that much information about) misinterprets video footage sent into space in the eighties as a challenge of war, they transmit the rules of engagement using eighties icons, like Madonna and Max Headroom. Like all arcade games of the era, each side will have three lives to defeat the other. When the aliens win a game (including the likes of Galaga, Pac-Man and Centipede), a token of victory (in the form of a human) would be abducted. If the humans win, they receive their own prize in the form of an arcade character. The first to lose all three lives must give up their planet.
In game mode, the concept takes on a new life. The way Columbus brings the games out of the arcade and into the real world is executed perfectly. The humor is just right, the level of action feels authentic and natural, and the visual effects, combined with the editing, is done with great precision and attention to detail. Best of all, Columbus utilizes these action sequences to not not only advance the plot, but allow his characters to grow. The moment Sandler’s character, Brenner, a man-child or sorts (it is what Sandler does best, now isn’t it?) who works as an installation “nerd” for an electronics company, decides to go against military orders and take up arms to help “win” Centipede is terrific in the way it evolves the film. The beats of the plot are precise in how and when they happen without fail, and shows us the potential the movie has. It’s a shame Columbus, Sandler and the rest of the cast and crew didn’t put as much care or passion into the scenes and story between the games, which unfortunately, take up the bulk of the film.
It’s not only the pace and the jokes that are heavily hit-or-miss during these moments of downtime, the chemistry between the characters (which shines during the battles) feels as if they built a strong chemistry together in rehearsals, but when it came time to shoot, were all filmed at different times and superimposed together. In this way, it feels as if Columbus is deliberately keeping everyone from going all the way in their performances. The biggest offender of this phenomenon is Dinklage, who gives an incredibly natural tone and personality to Eddie, one of the stand-out characters in the movie, but isn’t ever given the grand opportunity his character deserves to evolve past the cover of his persona. Because of this, Eddie’s ultimate comeuppance and redemption fall dreadfully flat due to lack of connection to his characters. And he’s not alone, as all the main characters don’t truly earn the growth or the resolution they’ve been given.
On a routine installation, Brenner meets Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a woman who just separated from her husband after cheating on her with a nineteen-year-old bimbo, a light plot point that initiates the romantic subplot of the film, but is utterly forgotten or left unexplored minutes after the initial meet-cute when they each find out they are both part of the President’s inner circle (in far different ways). Coincidences aside, I liked this development enough to forgive Columbus for catering to the lowest common denominator when it came to the military side of the film, and wasting some terrific talent in the process. Everything about the government, from the head-scratching choice to allow James to be cast as the President to never following through on the potential of Brian Cox and Sean Bean, is so heightened as to a level of goofiness that tears away at the tone Columbus originally sets up. Instead of grounding the military in a much more realistic way to counter-balance the absurdity of the premise, he takes them in the opposite direction, turning the supposed esteemed generals into dim-bulb cliches of previous hard-nosed generals.
Columbus also tends to skip over some of the rudimentary aspects that make up a film like this, such as getting to watch Brenner and his crew receive the uniforms for the first time, or a quick montage of the team putting together the mini-cooper ghosts at the last minute, which, along with a handful of other minor scenes, seem as if they were simply cut for time or pacing reasons. Unfortunately, no matter how good the high notes of the film are, without these smaller details, it feels like something is missing, so much so that even though the film clearly had the potential for being high-octane fun, Columbus remains too reserved in his choices, leading the film down a path to good, but failing to reach the pinnacle of greatness.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Vacation. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.