Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: "Pixels"

"Pixels" is the dream revenge movie for pretty much every kid who came of age post-1980: the world needs a hero, and it can only be someone who wasted countless hours and a Smaug-sized pile of quarters playing primitive arcade games at the Electric Dreams Factory (or whatever it was called in your town).

Isn't this the ultimate geek fantasy? To have the skills that were laughed at as a kid suddenly become valued in society the same way throwing deceased porcine hide is?

Since this is a geek movie, we've got to have some geeks to cheer for. Enter Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James and Peter Dinklage. All were video game superstars circa 1982, culminating in a championship marathon in which one emerged as the victor, his exploits recorded on video for posterity and sent into space.

Unfortunately, alien boogums found the video and mistook the old-school games -- Pac-Man, Defender, Centipede, Joust, Frogger, Q-bert, etc. -- as a challenge. They whipped up some versions of these digital "warriors" and sent them to Earth to do battle with humans.

They even look like the old 8-bit versions of the arcade characters, crude and seemingly pixilated when blown up to giant size. Though not as big as you might think: the poster shows a behemoth Pac-Man slurping up San Francisco in one gulp, but in the movie he's about the size of a smallish RV.

It's a goofy premise, courtesy of screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, based on a short film by Patrick Jean. It's kind of a rip-off of "Ghostbusters," with brainy losers vaulted into champions, but the notion still holds appeal.

Directed by hitmeister Chris Columbus, "Pixels" is breezy, dimwitted, action-filled and goofy. I certainly was never bored, though some of the gags and story threads were better left snipped on the editing room floor.

For instance, we're supposed to believe that James' character, Cooper, has grown up to be the President of the United States. Except he's not some competent, savvy politician, but the standard doofus Kevin James character he plays in every movie. Not surprisingly, his POTUS has become a laughingstock.

It's hard to believe anybody would ever vote such a guy into the highest office in the land... though I should note as I write this, Donald Trump is leading in the polls.

Brenner (a bored-looking Sandler) had the most natural talent of any gamer, but his confidence was shot when he lost the championship. Now he's become a Geek Squad-like drone who sets up tech for other people. Getting tapped by his best buddy in the White House to lead the fight against the invaders starts his underachiever-cum-savior journey.

Gad plays Ludlow, a wallflower who grew up to be a conspiracy theorist. He gets some of the best lines in the picture, and the "Book of Mormon" star also gets to belt out a tune for no good reason, other than it's nice to listen to.

Michelle Monaghan shows up, because the studio honchos felt we needed a pretty girl to look at. She's a military officer who takes an instant shine/dislike/maybe love? attitude toward the Sandler character.

Dinklage steals most of his scenes as Eddie, aka "Fire Blaster," an egocentric gamer who won the '82 championship (and also gave himself that nickname). Sporting a ferocious mullet and Southern-fried patter of quips about how awesome he is, Eddie is a despicable hoot. Actually, with the hair and self-puffery he reminds me of Donald Trump, though reportedly Dinklage based him on a real-life jerk seen in the excellent video game documentary, "The King of Kong."

Arriving as the summer movie season is cooling down, "Pixels" is clearly third-string fare, the sort of thing you go see while waiting for the movies that came out in May to hit video. It's decently entertaining, though it needed less Sandler and more mullet for the win.

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