At its best, Pixels is The Big Bang Theory of movies. That’s not a compliment.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
There are currently three potential reviews for Pixels floating around in my head. All are equally, vehemently negative, but each takes the film to task for a different set of faults. Yeah, this one really is as bad as you’ve heard it and were expecting it to be. It’s not quite Entourage levels of bad, but it is really, really damn close. It is a complete failure as a movie, littered with plot and logic holes that you can drive multiple cement trucks through and boasting atrocious performances and lifeless direction, it is a complete failure as nerd bait, such is the absolute contempt that it shows for those it spends 100 minutes pandering to, and it is a misogynistic piece of utter tripe that caused my blood to genuinely boil in anger at multiple points.
This is horrible. This is absolutely horrible. To pay money – real actual cash actual money cash real actual dollar – to watch this movie is to enable all of the horrible, self-absorbed people who were involved in this film’s creative process. Pixels is a movie that hates its target audience – which, bewilderingly, is videogame lovers who matured in the 80s instead of young kids today who love videogames – hates them all with a fiery passion, but loves itself unabashedly, and so spends its entire runtime insulting the characters that its cast are playing whilst flinging adoring wish-fulfilment affection on its cast and the Adam Sandler personality, otherwise known as all of the worst parts of nerdom.
This is not a movie. This is Happy Madison’s self-insert fan-fiction about how awesome they are.
Our film starts in 1982, and teenager Sam Brenner is the greatest whiz at videogames who ever lived. Encouraged by his friend Will Cooper, he enters the 1982 World Videogame Championships, meets the incredibly creepy and paranoid Ludlow Lamonsoff, and promptly loses in the final round to self-absorbed cool gamer Eddie Plant. The Championships are recorded and used as part of a space probe filled with examples of Earth culture, intended to educate any alien race that finds it. 33 years later, Earth is invaded by aliens who have taken the games as a sign of war. However, the world can be saved if the citizens of Earth can defeat the aliens in giant real-life versions of classic arcade games, so President Cooper (Kevin James, really) recruits Sam (Adam Sandler), Ludlow (Josh Gad, who has officially burnt up all the goodwill he earned from playing Olaf), and Eddie (Peter Dinklage for some ungodly reason) to save the planet.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I hear some foolish optimist say in the far-off background. Ah, but you see, I haven’t mentioned the specifics. Let’s start by talking more about Ludlow Lamonsoff because OH WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LUDLOW LAMONSOFF. It would be lazily offensive enough if Ludlow was just a hyper-paranoid basement-dwelling nerd who frequently gets into shouting matches with his grandma and believes that The Zapruda Film was edited because “JFK shot first” (in just one example of this film throwing a bunch of random things you know together to create something meaningless yet is supposed to be a joke). But, no. It is far, far, far worse than that.
Ludlow is in love with the lead character of an 80s arcade game called Lady Lisa. In the 80s portion, he sits around creepily holding conversations with the sprite who is incapable of responding in any way shape or form. Flash forward 33 years and his obsession has not faltered at all. He has a full-on shrine to her, constantly notes how he has tried to bring her into reality, and frequently makes reference to wishing to marry her. This is played for goofball “NERD!” laughs, along with the rest of his personality, instead of the deeply-troubling stunted behaviour that it really is. And, somehow, this ends up plumbing even lower depths once the aliens inevitably use her as one of their invading force soldiers later on. I can’t get into it here because spoilers – early next week on my new website (callumpetch.com), there will be a spoiler-filled look at the awfulness of this whole thing – but you had better believe that it caused me to shout “FUCK YOU!” at the film in the middle of a semi-crowded screening.
Eddie, meanwhile, is currently in prison for various incredibly unimportant reasons. His demands for his release include his own island, a helicopter, not having to pay taxes, and a three-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. He gets the last two, which, yes, means that he is being paid in women who have no say in the matter. The film, in fairness, wheels this back somewhat, before plunging ahead full-steam just before the credits roll as yet another part of one of the most hatefully sexist final reels I have ever seen in a blockbuster motion picture.
Then there is Sam. Sam is The Adam Sandler Character, surprising nobody since this is a Happy Madison movie. You know the drill by now: aggressively mean, ragingly sexist, spends almost all of the time that the movie runs for insulting his love interest – this time being thanklessly played by Michelle Monaghan and, good lord, what dirt did the casting director have on this lot (which also includes Brian Cox, Sean Bean, and a Jane Krakowski who is quite literally just a background decoration that hangs off of Kevin James’ arm in her every appearance) to get them to appear in this?! – and making claims like she’s a snob for not wanting to have sex with him. Oh, did I forget to mention that they both meet very shortly after she finds out that her high-school-sweetheart husband is divorcing her and that Sam is the one who keeps initiating the flirting against her will? Cos those are things that happen.
Now, in fairness, if this was where our cast started and they grew and changed as the movie went on, then maybe I’d be able to let this slide. As a bunch of terrible people grew up emotionally into non-shitty people who could move on from their glory days and manchild ways. But that’s not what happens. In fact, none of these people change. At all. These characters remain the exact same for 105 minutes barring one development for Sam, which doesn’t actually have anything to do with him improving as a person, and Eddie, who becomes less of a jerk to guys and also has a development that has nothing to do with him as a person. There are no arcs, no real developments, no change, no growth. These people start off as they are and then are rewarded for how they are with fame and women despite being terrible raging sexists.
And it’s not just offensive in how that leads to a glamorisation of all of the worst, most entitled parts of geekiness and nerdom – the ones who completely believed their parents when they were told by them that one day everything will come to them and that women will love them for who they are, and so never changed – it’s offensive in how it leads to a movie with nothing going on. Oh, sure, there are big (supposedly) expensive action scenes and world-ending stakes, but there’s nothing really going on. No depth, nothing below the surface that isn’t just being ragingly, actively sexist.
Why are any of these people the way that they are, besides fodder for snobby outdated and lazy “NERDS!” jokes? Why is Kevin James’ president character still friends with Adam Sandler 33 years on, for reasons other than “to make the plot happen”? Why does the offending game footage have to be captured from the championships that our characters enter? Other than the fact that they use some of the games that the guys have played, it’s never once brought up even though this information in the prologue SHOULD ACTUALLY MEAN SOMETHING! Why mention that the aliens were once a peaceful race until they found the probe if that’s not actually going to mean anything in the finale?! You’d think that would lead to an ending that’s solved through words instead of pointless power fantasy wish fulfilment, but nope! Evil aliens! Donkey Kong!
That kind of absolute laziness abounds throughout so much of the film that I don’t feel guilty for nitpicking, because it’s indicative of how little thought went into the movie as a whole. Why do the humans spend the first and last games being the good guys, yet spend the Pac-Man game being the ghosts? Why does Q*bert not speak Q*bertese? Why are there things like Tetris and Max Headroom running about when they came well after 1982, which is when the probe went up? Since Q*bert is a trophy given to the humans after winning a game, why do the aliens refer to him as a traitor later on? They GAVE THE HUMANS Q*Bert! Why is Lady Lisa, during the full-on invasion, rendered as a real person instead of an 8-bit sprite? What is the deal with the entire Iwatani – who is not the real Professor Iwatani, although the real Iwatani does cameo, so, other question: why isn’t Iwatani just playing himself – Pac-Man segment? Everybody knows that these are aliens pretending to be videogame characters so why, in this moment, does everybody pretend that they aren’t?
Since when can you perform cheat codes in Arcade games? Why can this somehow translate to reality? And, more importantly, WHY THE FUCK IS THIS GLARING FACTUAL INACCURACY A CENTRAL GODDAMN PLOT POINT?!
See, that right there is all the evidence one needs to realise that Pixels is not fit for purpose. Seriously, WHO IS THIS MOVIE FOR? It’s definitely not for kids, despite the focus on videogames and the presence of characters and games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, because most of its “humour” traffics in sex gags, 80s references, gay panic jokes, and outdated “NERD!” stereotypes, not to mention the toxic sexism that developing minds should be kept far away from. It’s not even for nerds, because it spends 105 minutes spitting in their faces with every last lazy cliché that has ever been levelled at nerds over the years – the movie equivalent of The Big Bang Theory. Christ, it’s arguably not even for those who matured in the 80s, since it doesn’t do anything with any part of its set-up that a million other films haven’t done better.
No, Pixels is for Happy Madison. It’s for Adam Sandler, it’s for Kevin James, it’s for the film’s director Chris Columbus. This is their self-insert power-fantasy, where they play terrible man-children who are hated by the world for (at least according to the film’s point of view) no good reason, until they end up saving us all without having to grow or change or improve as people and we all love them because, aww, they’re not such bad guys after all(!) And then women throw themselves at them for being so amazing and everything ends peachy-keen. What really gets me is that the film is so blatant about this. There’s no pretence that this is anything other than an extended ego-stroking or masturbation session that we are all voluntarily subjecting ourselves to.
Do you want to know how obvious this is? Kevin James plays The President Of The United States. He’s apparently near-illiterate, and he starts the film off being hated, seemingly because his policies are causing financial ruin for the younger generation and he’s lead America into some kind of war. But he’s just such a lovable bumbling kind-hearted kinda guy who just wants to spend time with his wife and friends, and can’t the media just get off his back already? And then, once he starts turning the tide of the alien invasion, EVERYBODY loves him! This is represented by a scene in which a dastardly reporter tries to trip him up at a press conference with a tough question filled with big words but is foiled because every other journalist shouts at the mean reporter, Kevin James gives a witty answer, and we end the scene with everybody pointing and laughing at the meany-pants reporter who is crying after being thoroughly served.
You know what? I retract my sub-heading. At least The Big Bang Theory is made for the enjoyment of other people. Pixels exists to serve nobody but the people who made it as a 105 minute exercise in them telling themselves that they are awesome as they are and everybody who says otherwise is a mean-old jerk. The very last thing that any of us should do is enable this shit by giving them money for it.