Retro Movie Review: Pixels

With all of the interest lately in retro gaming, I thought it was time to revisit the 2015 film Pixels. I did my best to forget any feelings I had for the film when it first came out, and I hoped to take a look at it from the point of view of a retro gamer.

Pixels was loosely based on a 2010 short film which had essentially no plot. I will start out by giving you a link to the original film, which has been remastered and put on YouTube. When it first came out, it was extremely well regarded, and it’s easy to see why. As a short, the film seems innovative and fun, with special effects that hit way above its pay grade.

And that may be the last nice thing I have to say in this article.

Watching the 2015 film​

For those unfamiliar with Pixels, here’s a very basic rundown. In 1982, a space probe sent a VHS tape of a video game championship out into the galaxy. This was misinterpreted as an attack strategy guide by hostile aliens, who change their entire composition to match old video games and attack Earth in the present day. Hilarity ensues as the now-grown participants of this video game championship band together to save the world. They have the help of a generically attractive and unsurprisingly smart-yet-emotional female character, while they’re opposed by equally generic boomer stereotypes. The final battle involves callbacks to virtually every video game you might remember from the 1980s, rendered faithfully to look like their 1980s counterparts but in 3D.

The first thing that struck me was that this film is almost ten years old. We’ve all experienced some form of time dilation in the last few years, sure. But I didn’t realize how long it had been since it came out. And then I started watching it. The core of the film is pure “bro comedy” of the type that’s long since gone out of fashion. More than that, it’s lazy bro comedy, relying on stereotypes and absurd situations that bear little resemblance to real life.

As a film…​

This is honestly a train wreck of a film. The plot rarely makes sense, the characters are thinner than a sheet of paper, and there’s too much reliance on adolescent humor. If this had been a better film in general, better written and directed, that might have worked. But here it doesn’t. The trio of Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, and Kevin James rely on their well-trod personas to carry them through a lazy script. That’s not to say there aren’t a few bright spots, but they’re certainly not enough to carry the film all the way.

Unsurprisingly, the two characters that are handled the best are played by Brian Cox (Logan Roy from Succession) and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones). Both actors take a fairly one-note character and give it some well-needed color, despite having little to work with. I can’t say the same about Michele Monaghan, who has done some excellent work in the past but was clearly phoning it in here.

It’s appropriate that the film is structured like a video game, with battles that get ever harder on the way to a final boss battle. That might have worked 20 or 25 years ago, but we expect more plot out of our films today, even the silly ones. This film doesn’t deliver on an emotional level, on an entertainment level, in fact on any level at all. The visuals are certainly fun but even by 2015 I think we’d all gotten to the point where just having cool visuals wasn’t going to be enough.

As a retro video gamer fantasy…​

There’s a lot to like here as a retro gamer. The filmmakers really did make an effort to honor the original games. There’s no mistaking their original designs, updated for the real world. If you were playing Centipede in the sky, this is what it would look like. If buildings were being beset by Tetris blocks, this is what it would look like. But, for a film so lovingly crafted around video games, the details are all wrong. For a film that depends on geek cred to carry it, it fails spectacularly and there’s no good reason why.

Geek cred depends heavily on getting the little stuff right. This film doesn’t do that at all. It’s that simple. Supposedly the aliens based everything on a 1982 video tape. The problem is, most of the referenced games didn’t exist in 1982. The big ones did, but there are too many references to later games. What’s more, they’re wrong. The film uses the home version of Tetris as a reference rather than the arcade version. Both versions date to the late 1980s anyway. Perhaps the biggest sin is the inclusion of a completely fictional game for no reason. Josh Gad’s character pines for the pixelated “Lady Lisa” from a video game that never existed. I can only guess that this was because they couldn’t figure out how to make Princess Peach sexy enough for a teenager to drool over, but it takes you right out of the film.

Bottom line​

If you’re able to sit back and forget that films need plot, character development, and acting, you might be able to like Pixels. You’d probably also need to forget the fine details of 1980s video games and just sort of enjoy what’s in front of you. Had Pixels been shorter or had more interesting events, it might have worked.

As something to stare at while you’re waiting for the teapot to boil, it’s entertaining for a few minutes at a time. But as a cinematic endeavor it falls flat. Having an interest in the 1980s games it recreates actually makes it worse, not better. Truthfully I’d love to see a film like this made today with accurate details and characters that made sense. Aging GenXers would eat up a film made with care and attention. As it is, I suggest you stay away from Pixels. It’s just not worth your time.

Pixels is probably streaming somewhere. I don’t recommend you find out where.

The post Retro Movie Review: Pixels appeared first on The Solid Signal Blog.

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