Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Last year at San Diego Comic-Con, my husband and I went to the Pixels-sponsored arcade to play Pac-Man, Frogger and Space Invaders. I'm not very good at these low-tech video games (or any video games really). Overall, it was a fun experience that was contrasted by my time at the Xbox Lounge where my favorite game was Fantasia: Music Evolved. The same year, on Examiner.com, I reviewed "100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience," and "Video Games: The Movie,” both crowdfunded documentaries. I was looking forward to the movie “Pixels.”
This year, at SDCC, seeing the poster for "Pixels," I was reminded of "A LEGO Brickumentary." The pixelated figures of characters from 1980s arcade game resemble high-tech LEGO or perhaps LEGO from the future. The Pixels SDCC arcade in 2014 was a marketing success and piqued my interest favorably, but in the end, as much as I wanted to like this movie, I did not. For some, this Happy Madison and Columbia production might elicit warm feelings of nostalgia with the soundtrack of 1970s and 1980s pop/rock classics, but the attitude toward women in the movie seems petrified in a different time period. Despite what that controversial Target T-shirt says, women are not trophies.
"Pixels" begins with an intriguing premise: that aliens misinterpret video recordings of a 1982 video game championship and decide to declare war with Earth in a competition based on old arcade games. During that championship, one local arcade player became a "loser" after finishing second to a professional video game player and that seems to have left him bereft of all ambition later in life. Instead of being a developer of video games, he is an on-call nerd, installing TVs and gaming systems in homes when the aliens attack.
This might sound something like a science fiction version of the TV series "Chuck," but much less charming. While "Pixels" celebrates male nerds taking on the world and winning, it also favors attractive women as end-game rewards.
One can almost overlook the pairing of 50-year-old Kevin James as the U.S. president and the 46-year-old Jane Krakowski as the First Lady, but not 48-year-old Adam Sandler's character Sam Brenner winning the heart of 39-year-old Michelle Monaghan's Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten. She's been dumped by her unseen husband for an also unseen 19-year-old Pilates instructor (named Sinammon) and is weepy in an attractive way. Sam and Violet overcome a predictable and charmless love-hate attraction. From there the romantic match-ups get creepier. The conspiracy-theory gamer, Ludlow Lamonsoff (played by the 34-year-old Josh Gad) gets to have the girl of his dreams: arcade game character Lady Lisa. As played by the 25-year-old Ashley Benson, Lady Lisa is the only pixelated character that gets fine-tuned into a humanoid appearance. By this I mean, her pixelation is so fine, we cannot differentiate between her and a human being and this presents a clear incongruity in the visual effects.
The worst is saved for last. The unsavory cheating game player Eddie Plant (played by the 45-year-old Peter Dinklage) makes a deal with the president to have a date with Serena Williams, who at first can't stand him, but at the end, the movie suggests that he does get his fantasy fulfilled: a threesome with the 33-year-old Williams and the 73-year-old Martha Stewart in the White House's Lincoln bedroom. Because Eddie was part of the team that saved the world, Williams and Stewart are willing groupies.
Is anyone in the audience really cheering at the end of “Pixels” when the three bachelor nerds of this herd of retro gamers get their girls? This part of the movie seems more like a 13-year-old boy's dream and I'm not even sure if it would have been acceptable in the 1980s. Even in the 1980s, there were female nerds and geeks, and in today’s world women play video games and women aren’t trophies for battles won, even if one does save the world from aliens.