Friday, July 24, 2015

Pixels: Game over!

Pixels (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional vulgarity

By Derrick Bang

Movies emerge from all sorts of sources.

Back in the Golden Age, adaptations came exclusively from popular novels and the theater stage. As we moved into the television age, iconic network characters leaped to the big screen, and then the dam truly burst, with high-concept projects concocted from songs, comic books, board games, computer games and even theme park attractions.

With Earth under attack by rather strange invaders, our heroes — from left, Violet
(Michelle Monaghan), Brenner (Adam Sandler) and Ludlow (Josh Gad) — confront one
crazy opponent after another. And yes, that's Q*bert on the far right: apparently on the
side of the angels.

 Most of those latter efforts, it must be mentioned, didn’t amount to much. No surprise there: Novels and plays contain rich narrative material constructed by writers who devoted a great deal of care to nit-picky details like plot logic and character development. Computer games offer little more than pop-culture images. (Anybody remember enduring Super Mario Bros.? Or either of the two Mortal Kombat bombs?)

Pixels derives from a 2010 short film of the same title by French writer/director Patrick Jean. It’s readily available via YouTube, Vimeo and various other Internet sources, and I heartily recommend the experience. It’s far more satisfying, at slightly more than 2 minutes (!), than this 98-minute, big-screen exercise in brain-dead chaos.

Scripters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling clearly borrowed heavily from the original Ghostbusters template, while acknowledging the current resurgence of interest in early-gen computer games such as Asteroids and Pac-Man. But the Ghostbusters riffs are strongest, down to our heroes’ similar uniforms and even stance, while using similar high-tech weapons to battle this story’s unlikely celestial invaders.

The presence of Dan Aykroyd, in an early scene, suggests his approval of this acknowledgment of past glories.

Trouble is, Ghostbusters was a vastly superior film, with a much better-developed storyline. Pixels is random and clumsy, its under-developed characters graceless and often left to stand about, as if wondering what to do next. The overall narrative is so poorly executed that it frequently feels as if different sets of writers contributed various scenes, leaving director Chris Columbus to stitch things together.

A task at which he failed.

I had to remind myself that Columbus helmed iconic films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potter entries and the big-screen version of Rent. Then again, Columbus also brought us lesser efforts such as Bicentennial Man and I Love You, Beth Cooper, so he’s not immune to errors in judgment. Or skill.

But Pixels, without question, is the nadir of his (thus far) 30-year career.

Which is a shame, because this film’s first act shows promise. A 1982 prologue introduces us to young gamers Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and Cooper (Jared Riley), who marvel at the delights to be found within their town’s first video game emporium. Their tag-along younger friend, Ludlow (Jacob Shinder), is content to fall in love/lust with a pixilated ninja babe dubbed Lady Lisa.

Brenner proves to be a natural, working his way up to a championship match against an arrogant young visitor named Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), who has dubbed himself “The Fire-Blaster.” The match is filmed, with the footage inserted by NASA into a deep-space probes: one of many examples, to entities Out There, of what Earth is like at that moment in time.

Flash-forward to the modern day. Cooper (now Kevin James) has, rather unexpectedly, become President of the United States. (One wonders who was inept enough to have lost that election.) He’s a meatball best known for embarrassing photo ops, but James nonetheless makes him somewhat endearing, in an oafish way.

Ludlow (Josh Gad) has become a conspiracy theory whacko (“Kennedy fired first!”) who still carries a torch for the imaginary Lady Lisa. Brenner (Adam Sandler) has blossomed into the ultimate under-achiever, as a roving tech nerd who installs home entertainment systems.

In that capacity, Brenner encounters Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a recently jilted wife, and her young son, Matty (Matt Lintz). The subsequent meet-cute connection is mutual all around, and also endearing: further proof that Sandler, when held in check, can be goofily charming while still delivering one-line zingers.

But there’s no time to explore romantic possibilities, thanks to a crisis that erupts halfway around the world, as a U.S. military base is attacked by free-flying whatzits that emit laser-like bursts which transform everything — buildings, people, the landscape — into small, multi-colored cubes of various sizes.

The assault is accompanied by a weird musical fanfare that Cooper immediately recognizes, when he views footage of the event. He summons Brenner to be sure, and they agree: Earth has just been attacked by the fictitious entities of the early 1980s computer game Galaga.

Ludlow supplies the next essential bit of information, rather mysteriously inserted into an old VHS tape he’d been watching. (No cable or satellite channels in his house; that’s how the government monitors people!) Apparently, that 1982 NASA tape was intercepted by an alien race that viewed the gaming footage as an act of war, and has created warriors based on those games, and sent them to Earth. The “rules” are spelled out by re-created video manifestations of characters from early 1980s TV shows.

It’s a duel to potential planetary destruction, with Earth granted three “lives,” as in classic arcade games. We’ve already lost the first life, and of course we lose the second after an assault in India, nobody having believed our heroes.

Then, finally acknowledging the inevitable, the first fair-fight clash takes place in England’s Hyde Park, with our newly jump-suited “Arcaders” taking on the rapidly descending Centipede. And, oh yes, it proves a fair fight thanks to weapons hastily devised by the tech wizards at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where — imagine the coincidence! — Violet happens to be a lieutenant colonel.

The old “gang” is fully assembled with the arrival of the smarmy and larcenous Eddie (Peter Dinklage), rescued from a long prison stretch and promised various things if he’ll help.

Which is right about the point that Columbus loses any semblance of control over this whacked-out storyline. The second act is bonkers, but at least visually impressive; effects supervisor Matthew Butler enthusiastically embraced the challenge of bringing all these 1980s video games into our real world. He and production designer Peter Wenham definitely hold our attention, even as things become progressively sillier.

The third act, however, defies description.

By this point, Herlihy and Dowling have abandoned any effort at coherence; they just toss stuff into the mix, like spaghetti hurled against a wall, to see if anything will stick.

Brian Cox and Sean Bean wander aimlessly through a few scenes, as a belligerent American admiral and an equally confrontational British SAS officer. The DARPA tech team includes a glass-brained android (Tom McCarthy) who’s just sorta taken for granted, as if such a breakthrough were commonplace.

Ludlow naturally comes face to face with an evil electronic personification of his beloved Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson), but what happens next is eye-rolling even by this numb-nuts film’s standards. An inappropriately chatty Q*bert, presented to our heroes as a “trophy,” seems oddly benevolent, given that he (it?) is a typical (?) denizen of this marauding alien race.

And if you expect any answers, after the final climactic battle, forget it; Herlihy and Dowling don’t even try to wrap things up. The final half hour is simply a mess.

Sandler holds things together as well as possible, and his calm, decent-guy charisma is a welcome counterpoint to — as the most obvious example — Gad’s overly shrill, shrieking handling of Ludlow. Eddie’s vulgar tendencies are wholly out of place in this dumb but mostly good-natured fantasy, with Dinklage’s earthy dialogue solely responsible for the otherwise harmless script’s PG-13 elements. The character simply doesn’t work, nor can Dinklage save him.

Lintz, also refreshingly serene, shares several engaging scenes with Sandler. Jack Fulton gets a hearty laugh as a young British lad who uncorks a choice one-liner. Jane Krakowski is completely wasted as Cooper’s wife, and thus the U.S. First Lady; Lainie Kazan has an equally useless role as Ludlow’s grandmother. Serena Williams and Martha Stewart appears as themselves. (Don’t ask.)

And — could it really be? — yes, Matt Frewer gets another shot at his own bit of 1980s pop-culture glory.

I’m intrigued by this film’s proximity to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, which also gave fresh life to characters from long-dormant games such as BurgerTime, Paperboy, Dig Dug and, yes, Q*bert. Indeed, little Q*bert is more easily recognized today, than he was three decades ago. Nostalgia sure takes us in strange directions.

A condensed and more intelligently scripted version of these events would have made a great 45-minute episode of the recent TV series Warehouse 13. But at more than twice that length, Columbus’ film loses its way — and its audience — long before its looney-tunes denouement. This is brain-dead, flashy Hollywood trash at its worst: every bit as mindless as the phosphor-dot spaceships that marched down the screen during a round of Space Invaders.

And not nearly as much fun.

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