Galaga. Space Invaders. Centipede.
Way back in 1982, they were all the video game rage. Just grab a pocket full of quarters, hit the arcade and you were saving the world in mash-a-button-and-zap-a-baddie style. That’s exactly what Sam Brenner and his best bud Cooper were apt to be doing on any given summer’s day. And they were good at it.
In fact, Brenner was so good at seeing the various games’ attack patterns and rhythms that he earned a spot in the first national video game championships—a competition that set the best of the best against one another in a winner-takes-all gaming blast. And I should tell you that Brenner actually made it all the way to the final round … where he lost to a kid named Eddie (known as “The Fire Blaster”) on the dreaded Donkey Kong.
Still, it was so rad! And he found out later that tapes of the competition were included in a time capsule that NASA launched into outer space. You know, just in case any alien race out there wanted to see what was happening back here on our little blue space marble. So that was pretty special, I guess.
Jump to the present, though, and Brenner isn’t feeling all that rad or special anymore. Maybe it started with that youthful failure. Because every time he’s faced a particularly tough challenge in life, well, it just feels like Donkey Kong all over again. And here he is: old, overweight and spinning his wheels as a Nerd Brigade tech.
Frankly, he hates it. And he can’t even pretend to get the current video game crazes. Who wants to run around blasting out digital brains in loud, nasty combat action? Give him the old colorful arcade stuff any day.
And then Brenner’s fortunes suddenly change … when the aliens attack.
Seriously. It’s a very strange event that some people are linking to that time-capsule launch back in the ’80s. Seems as though space aliens on the receiving end of those old video game recordings must have misinterpreted them as an act of war. Wow! And they’ve sent Pac-Man himself to retaliate!
In fact, giant versions of all those old video game characters are hitting the Earth in various spots and blasting everything into 8-bit chunks. They’ve already taken out a military base in Guam, obliterated the Taj Mahal in India, and are promising more mayhem.
Earth needs capable defenders! A group with knowledge of these old games. Battlers with a special set of skills, if you will. And that means one thing: Brenner and other tired, paunchy “arcaders” like him must get back in the game … and finally defeat that dastardly Donkey Kong once and for all.
For all of his backhanded smarminess, Brenner is a pretty nice guy who’s ultimately willing to put himself in harm’s way to help humanity survive the alien assault. And his quirky fellow arcaders fall into that category as well.
Both suffering from divorces after their respective spouses cheated on them, it’s obvious that Brenner and Violet long for a solid, healthy married relationship.
After beating a rampaging video game character, Brenner tells grateful people that he’s just a “loser who’s good at video games.” And a young boy pipes up with, “Thank God for that!” Ludlow says Violet smells good, like “the book of Genesis.”
Eddie asks for a three-way hookup with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart as payment for helping fight the aliens. We hear repeated sensual quips. Eddie calls Violet “Sugarbuns.” Violet and Brenner talk about the sexual unfaithfulness of their former spouses. Violet’s young son notes that his mom is determined to “invent a slut-seeking missile.” Brenner and Cooper talk about “hot” women. Brenner openly ogles Violet, repeatedly tossing come-ons her way until they eventually embrace and kiss.
Another former gamer named Ludlow makes lascivious comments about buff Navy SEALs, referencing Magic Mike and slapping them on the backside. He kisses a sexy video game character named Lady Lisa, then marries a version of her and produces a crib full of baby video game characters with her.
A number of women—including Violet and Serena Williams—wear revealing attire, ranging from midriff-baring crop tops in the ’80s to the cleavage- and thigh-revealing getups of today.
When the alien video game character Q*bert watches someone playing a modern shooter game, the run-and-gun action makes him quake in fear. That’s definitely a commentary on how the visceral violence quotient of games has changed over the years. And it’s a pretty good indicator of the limited level of mess in this film, too.
Of course there’s an abundant amount of slam-bam action between the swirling video game invaders and human combatants, but no blood or death is in evidence. For one thing, the aliens can’t be harmed by conventional weapons; they have to be zapped into pixel parts by way of “super-charged light particles.” And when humans, cars and buildings are gobbled up or hit by alien forces, they simply break down into pixel shapes of their own (and we see them all reconstructed later on).
That kind of pixel pulping includes, for instance, swarms of attackers swooping in on cities and demolishing international sites, from the Taj Mahal to the Washington Monument. Pac-Man chomps his way down New York City boulevards, chewing up scores of buses, trucks, cars and a fire-engine along the way. He bites his creator’s arm. Big barrels bash down on things when Donkey Kong asserts himself. Etcetera.
Brenner accidentally punches Ludlow in the face and sends him tumbling out the back of a moving vehicle. Ludlow is also kicked in the face by his crush Lady Lisa in a pratfall-filled struggle. And while chasing the giant Pac-Man, Eddie launches his vehicle into the East River and Brenner backs off the roof of a parking garage.
One f-word (delivered in a thick Australian accent) and two s-words. We also hear four or five uses each of “d–n” and “b–ch,” and a dozen uses each of “a–” and “h—.” An Australian soldier tells someone to “b-gger off,” calls people “nipple twisters” and spits out “bloody” several times. God’s name is sporadically misused.
When Brenner and Violet first meet, she’s drinking Chardonnay and crying by herself in a closet. He joins her and they both get tipsy. Later they drink shots of vodka while at a pub packed with celebrating beer drinkers. Violet swigs a beer in another scene. Cooper grabs a pitcher of the stuff and guzzles it. Eddie throws back shots of whiskey. A group of civilians is told that a conflict between soldiers and aliens is really just a beer commercial being shot. Brenner talks about “dorm room drug parties” in college.
A young Cooper steals a jar of quarters from a young girl. Brenner hurls personal insults at government officials, calling, for instance, a woman “Gandalf” because of her white hair. Ludlow admits to hacking into government servers. When particularly frightened, Q*bert lets loose with, shall we say, a stream of pixels. It’s revealed that Eddie uses cheat codes when gaming.
In the midst of a constant barrage of ho-hum Hollywood remakes, copycats and sequels, this Adam Sandler comedy starts out with a rather cute proposition. What if supersized Galaga ships, rampaging Centipedes and an ever-hungry Pac-Man attacked Earth? As an old arcader myself, that sounds like a lot of fun all mixed up in loads of colorful, old-school CGI action.
And to a certain point, Pixels delivers on that potential as it packs in a light lesson about not letting old failures and losses dictate your future choices. But I’m afraid I might have come up with more clever ideas for this flick in my own imagination in the 60 seconds after hearing about it than its creators did in the years it took to make. Indeed, most of the truly creative parts of this cute idea could fit in the space of a trailer … which you can enjoy for free online. The full 100-minute version adds very little else of value. What those extra minutes do add are some foul language, adult situations and innuendo by way of the typical Sandler shtick.
Got quarters burning a hole in your pocket? I know this retro arcade across town that might end up providing a lot more family fun than Pixels.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.