The 80s Attack! (Pixels movie review)

PixelsPixels marks a new interesting first for video-game to movie adaptions. Rather than a straight adaption of any one video-game, it is a cross-over riff on 1980s gaming in the form of a disaster/alien invasion movie. The concept in all its lunacy is quite novel and I went into the film expecting to be entertained, which I was. While the simple fact that it’s not directly based on any one game could be considered a weakness, at the same time it’s admirable that the movie tries to stand on its own two feet as a film.

A time-capsule sent by NASA to space which encapsulates mankind’s greatest achievements is misinterpreted as a declaration of war by aliens who send physical recreations of video-games to Earth to challenge mankind in a fight. Sam (Adam Sandler) is the runner-up of the 1982 World Video-Gaming Championship where he started his descent into mediocrity after being beaten by a major douchebag (Peter Dinklage). In the present day, his idiot best friend (Kevin James) is the President of the United States and Sandler’s character finds a new meaning helping the government take down the bad guys while simultaneously developing romantic feelings for a defence expert Violet (Michelle Monaghan) by whom he gets jilted at the start.

Other colourful characters include Sandler’s equally game-talented and conspiracy theory spouting friend (Josh Gad), a jerkwad general (Brian Cox) and Q*Bert. We even get a few familiar faces from prior video-game movies like Sean Bean (Silent Hill & Silent Hill: Revelations) as an asshole British officer and Fiona Shaw (Super Mario Bros.) as the British Prime Minister.

After a fairly down-to-Earth opening, the movie gets whisked into action-packed scenes where the Pixel-special effects actually mesh surprisingly well with everything. The Pac-Man sequence is a particular highlight – but even the early Centipede and the finale Donkey Kong segments are excellent. Over-all, every game scene is handled really well and with a lot of tongue-in-cheek detail.

As for the human story, it’s a very typical “from zeroes to heroes” scenario where each of the main characters start at a very lowly place and eventually achieve what they want. I really did enjoy Sandler and Michelle Monaghan’s interplay which is about the most nuanced and whole-heartedly funny parts of the whole movie. Other characters get their shining moments but generally, the vibe among the characters is excellent, even with Dinklage’s cartoony douchebaggery.

While I really had a blast with the movie, I’ll readily admit that the movie has a few painful flaws which keep it from reaching the true top-tier of video-game films. The movie’s principal problem in my view is that it tries to be too many things: a disaster movie, an alien-invasion movie, an Adam Sandler movie, a family movie and a romantic comedy. To its credit, Pixels doesn’t hold back on any of these fronts but it leads to an awkward miss-mash of styles. While Monaghan’s character is given a lot of depth, I felt the human-relationship aspects of the film started to get a little overplayed towards the end.

Adam Sandler being in the movie is already a deal-breaker for those who don’t enjoy his brand of comedy and while I did, some of his (seemingly) improvised jokes felt almost a little out-of-place. The aliens themselves are really not defined well and the general 80s acquisition (where threats are sent to Earth in the form of 80s celebrities) aspect got almost a little over-bearing for my taste. And this unfortunately leads to the movie’s biggest weakness which is that the layer of video-gaming is a rather superficial one. Just as with Wreck-It Ralph, the movie is really not about the thematic content of video-games, its story just happens to deal with video-games. That in itself isn’t bad, but it begins to show after Q*Bert steps into the scene which is when the movie sort of shifts gears into being a bit more cartoony.

These irks aside though, I really enjoyed the movie a lot and I wish similarly different takes on video-game films would become more common. Pixels isn’t a perfect movie but I feel it’s doing this category of film-adaptions a service by not simply repeating what’s been done before.

Score: 3½ out of 5

  • +1 Peter Dinklage and Josh Gab (Dojo Quest)
  • +1 The Pac-Man Sequence (and pretty much every video-game sequence)
  • +½ Q*Bert is adorable!
  • +½ Violet’s story (and to a lesser degree Sam’s interaction with her son)
  • +½ Adam Sandler’s Comedy
  • -½ Adam Sandler’s Comedy
  • -1 Too many 80s Pop-culture references