Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Show a classic video game fan a cool, live-action recreation of Centipede or play them some sound effects from Galaga and you can elicit happy memories and feelings of joy.
But nostalgia can only get you so far, and if you were to take the well-known arcade icons out of Pixels and replace them with generic characters you would be left with a bland, illogical mess of a sci-fi movie. The experience is an exercise in cringing at bad one-liners and stomaching dumb plot devices before saying, "Aww, look, Q-Bert!"
In 1982, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) narrowly loses a video game championship that is filmed and sent into space by NASA. Years later, aliens have found that footage and taken it as a challenge to come to Earth and battle for supremacy in gigantic recreations of 80s-era arcade games.
Brenner's childhood friend Will Cooper (Kevin James) is, somehow, the President of the United States, despite displaying little to no aptitude for the job during the course of the movie. Of course, he calls in Brenner and a couple other acquaintances from their past (Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage) because the U.S. military is no match for the likes of Donkey Kong or Breakout: the world needs gamers.
It's a familiar fantasy for those who have spent a long time (perhaps too long) playing games. The idea that maybe, just maybe, having the highest score in Joust will one day get you a job, an attractive spouse and the adoration of the world at large is intoxicating. Winning a major tournament or ending up in the Guinness Book of World Records would be cool enough, but saving the world? That's got to feel great, right?
When it works, Pixels feels like an attempt to write a love letter to old-school gamers and the games they loved, but even when the geeks of the movie are heroes they tend to be ripe for ridicule. In these moments the movie doesn't feel like a heartfelt tribute, it feels like a shameful attempt to cash in on the people who do fondly remember arcades.
The main protagonist is not great with women, and he pulls off flirtatious moves with a just-divorced Lieutenant Colonel (Michelle Monaghan) that shouldn't work, yet somehow do. Gad's character is a conspiracy nut whose social awkwardness puts the 40 Year Old Virgin to shame. Though he's supposedly based loosely on real-world video game champion Billy Mitchell, Dinklage's character is the kind of over-the-top jerk that nobody would ever want to hang out with in any capacity.
Oh, and Gad's love interest (Ashley Benson)? She's a fictional video game heroine with zero lines of dialogue who exists only to look beautiful. It's no secret that video games in general have not had the greatest track record with female characters, but do we have to spread that failure to video game movies as well?
If you want to enjoy Pixels, don't try to pay attention to its story. One major plot point involves one of the main characters somehow using a cheat code in a real-world version of Pac-Man, causing the invading aliens to declare all-out war because the humans "broke the rules." Just one problem with that (well, OK, one of many problems with that): the aliens themselves already broke the rules of the games they're claiming to imitate. You know Centipede? Yeah, the titular monster in that game shouldn't be able to just leave the field of play to wreak havoc on some nearby apartment buildings.
To be fair, the mess of a plot is mostly there to loosely tie together the big CG set pieces, which can be legitimately entertaining. The aforementioned Centipede scene is a fun ride that, at its best, manages to accurately capture the old coin-op feeling of shooting frantically at bugs as they get closer and closer to the ground. Isolate a few scenes like this and you could have a series of mini films that rival the 2010 original Pixels short, which this movie attempts to stretch to a worthwhile feature length.
But even the nostalgia play goes too far, and Pixels leans so heavily on it that the whole thing collapses. There is a reference to the notorious message board 4chan that exists for no reason other than to be a reference. At one point in the movie, fictional British AI Max Headroom makes an appearance despite being only tangentially (at best) related to video games. Time after time Pixels trots out something from the 80s as a crutch to cover up a lack of clever writing.
Pixels is disappointing largely because of what it could have been. Other movies (like the documentary King of Kong) have proven that competitive video games can be exciting, while other mediums (like the novel Ready Player One) have proven that you can have a better narrative excuse for revisiting arcade classics. It has some fun moments, but Pixels probably isn't destined for its own place on the movie high score board.
Directed by Chris Columbus. PG-13 (some language and suggestive comments).106 mins. In wide release.