Does Pixels buck the trend of lame video-game-to-film adaptations… or is it game over for the spoof comedy?
If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching the pitch-perfect video-game parody Wreck-It Ralph, you’ll have a good idea of where the bar has been set for this fledgling sub-genre. The aforementioned film was an intelligent, heartfelt breath of fresh air in a glut of Resident Evil “reimaginings” and straight-to-DVD Halo tie-ins. Not only did it achieve a Pixar-quality of family storytelling, but the games it so lovingly referenced played a meaningful part in the narrative.
Weighed against these criteria, Pixels falls well short. Wreck-It Ralph was the result of a perfect storm of creativity and good timing. Pixels is more like the gentle rumble of far-away thunder that follows in the aftermath: still exciting here and there, but lacking the unpredictability, explosiveness and genuine emotion of its predecessors. But don’t write it off just yet – there’s still some enjoyment to be had with this well-intentioned comedy.
Pixels begins with best friends/video game nerds Brenner (Adam Sandler) and Cooper (Kevin James) competing in the finals of the 1982 World Video-Game Competition. Brenner loses the deciding round of Donkey Kong to the reigning champion Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones).
We then fast forward to the present day. Brenner has resigned himself to a humdrum job as a software installer, while in an inexplicable yet amusing turn of events, Cooper is now President of the United States. Of course, that doesn’t stop his best buddy Brenner from popping in to see what’s new in the White House.
Characters from classic arcades games such as PAC-MAN, Frogger and Galaga all make an appearance.
The real absurdity begins when extra-terrestrial signals warn of a pending alien invasion, having mistaken a rocket full of video games as a declaration of war. The rules are simple: Earth gets three ‘lives’. If they lose them all, it’s game over and the planet gets destroyed. Brenner, Cooper, Eddie and their buddy Ludlow must use their gaming skills to defeat the aliens, who attack Earth with 80’s video game replicas.
The story is so ridiculous that it’s actually quite fun, thanks to a standout supporting cast and geek-savvy set pieces. Although Sandler’s presence does lend wider appeal to the fairly niche subject matter, it could be problematic if his usual wisecracking-yet-affable goofball shtick doesn’t quite do it for you.
The funniest character by no stretch, however, is Ludlow (Josh Gad). Ludlow is what can only be described as a tad… impulsive. One great scene sees the nasal-voiced nerd going all Full Metal Jacket Drill Instructor on Cooper’s elite military unit… then remembering his place and slinking off into the corner.
If Pixels wasn’t so tongue-in-cheek, its concept would wear thin fast. After all, it’s essentially a one-joke movie. However, the script has a good deal of well-written gags that extend the appeal beyond geek fodder, pacing is good, Q*Bert is ridiculously lovable and the 3D visual presentation (most apparent during the large-scale invasion sequences) turns what could easily become B-movie territory into something more cinematic.
There are downsides, though. The film keeps its momentum going to the end credits, but there just aren’t enough layers in the comedy to justify repeated viewings. What’s more, the alien invasion comedy has been better explored by cult classics such as Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, which channels so much zaniness into its modest budget that Pixels looks overly-polished by comparison.
Still, for a comedy that respects its source material and asks only for a little suspension of disbelief in return, it seems almost unfair to weigh Pixels against genre leaders. What Adam Sandler and co. have achieved is no more or less than a funny take on the coin-op games that were once a daily staple for many of today’s fathers. Just don’t expect too much…
Pixels is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.