Daenerys Targaryen: “I’m not going to kill you.”
Tyrion Lannister: “No? Banish me?”
Daenerys Targaryen: “No.”
Tyrion Lannister: “So if I’m not going to be murdered and I’m not going to be banished…”
Daenerys Targaryen: “You’re going to play a supporting role in an Adam Sandler movie.”
Movies based on and around video games have existed in Hollywood now for over 20 years, and so far, popular consensus has judged only one of them to be worthy of true greatness. That movie was Wreck-it Ralph, which came out just a few years ago and was well-received by just about everyone, tipped a top hat and winked to those who love video games. Although Wreck-it Ralph featured popular characters from the video game universe, it did so clearly as reference points to watching gamers and spoke to us rather than blatantly pry our wallets open. It understood the appeal of gaming. If I was going to try to deduce a second-place winner, it would be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but that’s only arguably a video game movie. Maybe Mortal Kombat if you’re in that school of thought, but Mortal Kombat sucked, and in any case this is only a very distant second anyway.
Even though gaming jumped into a mainstream hobby and art form in the last couple of console generations, gamers still have to contend with the old juvenile delinquent stereotypes that resulted in atomic wedgies and wet willies back in the day. Whenever we think we’re making progress in the anti-stereotype march, though, something like Gamergate walks in and decides to reinforce all the anti-social, woman-hating bullshit we still have to contend with whenever we tell people our hobbies include playing video games. The latest offender is Adam Sandler’s latest movie, Pixels, and gamers aren’t the only ones who are going to be dragged down with it. Dan Aykroyd makes a short feed-me cameo. Martha Stewart and Serena Williams are in here too. Toru Iwatani – the creator of Pac-Man – has both a cameo and an actor who plays a fictionalized version of him. Hall and Oates, Dan Patrick, Robert Smigel, and Steve Koren all cameo while Billy West has a short voice role. Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean, and Brian Cox all play small supporting roles while Michelle Monaghan and Peter Dinklage are both in large, important roles. That’s a hell of an impressive talent heist, and you have to wonder who lost what bets to end up appearing in a Happy Madison movie.
While you could make the argument that Pixels could potentially damage the whole Gamergate thing by virtue of portraying the avatars of what most of its followers probably are, that damage is easily nullified by the movie’s attitude toward women: There are three characters without a Y, excluding the cameos, and all of them are basically used as prizes for the men. Yes, even Monaghan, who plays a military Colonel that loves to create and toy around with weird weapons. It’s so bad that one of the characters – a hopeless, socially stunted dweeb named Ludlow – has a shrine built to Lady Lisa, a warrior woman from a fictional game. When Lady Lisa pops out as one of the pixelated bad guys, Ludlow is able to make a grandiose speech to her which results in her immediately switching sides.
Adam Sandler hates his audiences. That much has been clear for some time. Maybe the Sandler who broke through in the mid-90’s could have made Pixels into something worthwhile, but current Sandler is badly out of touch with everyone old enough to remember when he was making good movies. Sandler used to play to the better parts of humanity, but lately he’s begun to morph into an odd comedy version of Robert Altman. If you’re anything close to the film aficionado that I am, that might seem like a bit of a distance, but hear me out: Altman is the patriarch godfather of the mosaic drama movie, but that’s about the only split between him and Sandler. Other than that, both Altman and Sandler’s movies are driven by stereotypes highlighting all the worst aspects of their characters. Plot takes a backseat in both their movies – both of them basically wrote out their plots on their coffee break napkins because they wanted characters to drive the movies. Then they went about creating their characters by writing out the worst archtypes they could think of and drawing them out of a hat. Both catered movies about low-class people at their worst. Ask some pretentious film asshole about Altman, though, and you’re likely to hear farfetched explanations about the great web of humanity, or looks at the worst of… And I always block them out right there because these people are dicks who are lying to everyone, including themselves, and sometimes well enough to even believe their lies. No. Anyone who likes Robert Altman – or at least thinks of him as a great filmmaker – simply hates poor people and is looking for justification to avoid them.
Fortunately, Sandler hasn’t been allowed to get away with this. This is perhaps because Sandler is more straightforward and honest about his hatred. It took all of five minutes for him to establish his character, Sam Brenner, as an antisocial slob who couldn’t get a handle on his life because he lost a video game competition as a teenager. If you make it through the first five minutes of adult Sam’s introduction without feeling a gut urge to punch him, check your pulse. He is working as an installer for a team like the Geek Squad. Sam’s buddy Ludlow is a different kind of antisocial, with his basement shrine to a video game character and his conspiracy theories. Eddie Plant, a gaming champion who gave himself the nickname “Fire Blaster,” the appropriate soul brother of real-world gaming champion Billy Mitchell here. Only Will Cooper managed to detach himself from the contest that ruined everyone’s lives, but Will is played by Kevin James, and Will is also the President of the United States. Most critics have been complaining that James isn’t believable as the Prez, but I don’t think of it as playing the Prez. I think of it as James playing his usual role as an incompetent boob, which he does as well here as anywhere.
During the big 1982 competition that brought these four together for the first time, the government took footage of the games and sent it out to some random grouping of stars in space, hoping to make contact with an alien race. It worked a little too well. See, the aliens did stumble into the footage, and they sort of took it the wrong way. Instead of “let’s be friends,” the message the aliens took from the probe was interpreted as “let’s have a pissing contest for keepsies.” So they found their way to Earth, in the form of late-’70’s and early-’80’s-era video game characters, rudely issued their challenge, and started knocking down everything in sight. The Army has been preparing odd weapons which could be used to ward off such an invasion, of course, and what those weapons were originally going to be used for is never explained.
Explanations are perhaps not the point, though. Maybe I’m just thinking too hard about Pixels. But I did find the inconsistency of the video game scenes a little odd. During one attack, the aliens are attacking in the form of the bad guys from Centipede while the good guys stand on the ground, firing away. The next attack revolves around Pac-Man, and Pac-Man is the bad guy. The good guys drive cars based off the four ghosts that chase Pac-Man through the maze. The final act is a splurge of references that director Chris Columbus places onscreen but can’t seem to quite be able to field marshall.
That brings me to one of the major problems: The video game references are nothing but references. This is Sandler directly lifting pages right out of The Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer Book of Filmmaking: References don’t have to be anything but references! All they have to do is get the audience to say “hey, look what it is!” The game references don’t do much that’s creative or original with the material. To reference my favorite video game movie again, look at Wreck-It Ralph. It turned the classic video game Root Beer Tapper into a bar where video game characters met and chatted after hours. Tapper’s bar came complete with a lost and found which contained a mushroom from the Mario series, a warning exclamation point from the Metal Gear Solid games, and a pair of Zangief’s briefs. Ralph met up with a group of popular video game villains who were having trouble dealing with being the fall guy all the damn time. The contrast is used perfectly with Q*Bert: In Wreck-It Ralph, Q*Bert was a sympathetic character whose game got taken away from the arcade. We felt for him because he got placed into a bad situation, but later he was the one who clued Felix in to what Ralph was up to. In Pixels, Q*Bert is given away by the aliens as a prize. He’s more or less a MacGuffin, and Pixels movie laws can’t figure out what to do with him. He gives the good guys some useful information after the bad guys give him away, only for the bad guys to refer to him as a traitor after he does so. Um, hey aliens, you do realize Q*Bert was simply playing by your own rules, right? Then he turns into a permanent version of Lady Lisa for Ludlow at the end, a creepy turn of events which even the movie calls itself out for!
This isn’t to denounce Pixels completely. By any measure, the special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They rank right up there with Tron Legacy, Transformers, and those all-time barometers of movie special effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Wars trilogy. They become the star in the final leg of the movie, and for a few brief shining moments, Pixels becomes tolerable. And despite my opening mocking Peter Dinklage’s casting, Dinklage is one of the few actors in Pixels who really throws himself into his part as Eddie Plant. Dinklage is delightfully over the top, and his performance – which channels the charismatic egomaniacism of the real Billy Mitchell – is such a joy to watch that it’s almost enough to rescue Pixels from being unwatchable. More moments with him and Pixels could have been elevated from bad bad into fun bad. Also, Sandler’s buddy, the insufferable Nick Swardson, isn’t in here to obliterate it. Unfortunately, it’s too little, and you’ll get more out of the two-minute short from Patrick Jean.