Rarely has a movie received such a vitriolic response from critics as Pixels, Sony’s late entry into the summer blockbuster maelstrom; to say that it hasn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms is to bring a whole new meaning to the word understatement. It’s been loathed, detested with a vengeance, ripped to bits and just generally been written off as not much cop. In truth, it really isn’t much good but it’s not quite as bad as advance word of mouth might have you believe. The main problem is that Pixels doesn’t seem to be aiming for the right target audience. By and large its weak humour is entirely family-friendly (and it’s quite refreshing to see an American comedy not falling over its own feet in its desperation to set a new low in foul language and stomach-churning gross-out antics); but by the same token, as the core of its plot is driven by references to now-primitive arcade computer games from the early 1980s, much of it will sail way over the heads of a young audience who, despite some nifty, colourful visuals, are likely to be both bored and baffled by the appearances of the likes of Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede.
Inspired by a 2010 two-minute animated French film of the same name by Patrick Jean, Pixels appears, superficially, to be quite clever. An extra-terrestrial intelligence misinterprets decades-old video feeds of classic arcade computer games as a declaration of war by the human race and launches an attack on Earth using manifestations of arcade game characters. Earth’s only – and utterly unlikely – line of defence is a bunch of ageing former gamers whose number includes, of course, the US President. Sadly, precious little hilarity ensues...
Pixels wants to be Ghostbusters so much it hurts. When the aliens attack London and, in the climax, New York, it’s inevitable that similar – if less ambitious – scenes in Ivan Reitman’s 1984 classic will spring to mind. Later on the team become known as ‘Arcaders’; they wear boiler suits and fight off the invaders with super-powerful light beam weapons. But here the comparisons end; Pixels has neither the wit or charm of Ghostbusters and, despite its spectacle and visual pizzazz, it feels lumpy and clumsy and its long, dull lifeless scenes which are supposed to add colour to the largely-irritating characters will surely leave you yearning for the next special effects blitz, if only to pass the time.
Adam Sandler - last good film Punch-Drunk Love – phones in his usual languid slacker performance (he’s 48 years old now and should really be thinking twice about accepting roles which require him to wear hideous orange shorts) as former gamer Sam Brenner and the appalling Kevin James, Sam’s former school friend, plays a US President so inept even the American public would never vote him into office. Michelle Monaghan is Sandler’s unlikely love interest – there’s no chemistry there at all - and Josh Gad plays the inevitable irritating fat dorky team member with Peter Dinklage doing his best with feeble material as Eddie Plant, Sam’s childhood gaming nemesis. But Pixels just isn’t funny – at all – and it’s forced to resort to simple knockabout humour, unsophisticated wordplay and childish slapstick.
Yet the film isn’t an utter write-off. The visual effects are dazzling and an older audience will delight at the appearances of computer game characters fondly remembered from their youth. Even this reviewer felt a bit of a thrill at seeing a sudden unexpected turn by Max Headroom, voiced as ever by Matt Frewer. One or two ideas work quite well; the aliens communicate by using manipulated archive footage of 1980s icons and the final battle in Donkey Kong’s lair is especially well-realised and briefly lifts the film from the torpor of its undemanding, unambitious screenplay.
Not nearly as clever as it thinks it is and with no clear idea who it’s really aimed at, Pixels might well have been intended to launch a whizzy new film franchise. But unfortunately (or more accurately, fortunately) it looks like it’s ‘Game Over’ for that one...
PIXELS / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: CHRIS COLUMBUS / SCREENPLAY: TIM HERLIHY, TIMOTHY DOWLING / STARRING: ADAM SANDLER, KEVIN JAMES, MICHELLE MONAGHAN, JOSH GAD, PETER DINKLAGE, BRIAN COX / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 12TH
Expecting Rating: 5 out of 10