I wanted to like Pixels.
Or, at the very least, I wanted to not be embarrassed by it.
Even though gaming has been part of my career for 15 years now, it’s still occasionally tough for me to admit I’m a gamer. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, which was a time when being a gamer was a touchy subject. My parents never really understood games or understood my interest in them. This means, sadly, that there will always be a part of me —that oddball gamer/weirdo part — that they will never fully comprehend.
Now along comes a movie that slaps a big Pac-Man on its poster. It stars Adam Sandler, an actor my fussy father claims to have enjoyed seeing in 50 First Dates. When I said that I didn’t want to be embarrassed by Pixels, what I was trying to say was this: I hoped this movie might somehow help my parents understand why their oldest boy has chosen to live his life the way that he does.
Full disclosure: I'm not a huge fan of Adam Sandler’s films. The same goes for Kevin James. I feel like both of their faces should be on a Post Office “Wanted” poster: GUILTY OF CREATING MANY MEDIOCRE ENTERTAINMENTS. We’re nearly two decades removed from Sandler’s string of goofball classics (Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer), and James is coming off Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, currently enjoying a rip-roaring 6% at Rotten Tomatoes.
But I mainly feel bad for gamers. Here’s why.
In Pixels, Adam Sandler plays an arrested man-child named Brenner. An arcade champion from the 1980’s, Brenner now spends his days reluctantly installing flat-screen televisions. He wears a t-shirt with the word ‘NERD’ scrawled on the front, in case you didn’t quite get it.
Alas, Brenner shall not remain arrested for long, because space aliens have decided to attack Earth in the form of ’80’s-era video games. Pac-Man, Galaga, Donkey Kong, Centipede — all the games from my youth are weapons in the alien arsenal. Since Brenner’s best friend from childhood is, naturally, the President of the Goddamned United States (played by James), Brenner is called upon to save the world.
He gathers together a crew of stereotypes to help get this done, including Peter Dinklage as a mulleted version of real-life Donkey Kong jerk Billy MItchell (see: The King of Kong). But the most offensive of Brenner’s game-playing buddies is Josh Gad’s Ludlow. He’s a portly, virginal, basement-dwelling gamer who, even as an adult, remains portly and virginal, and, yes, still dwells in a basement. Didn’t this creaky stereotype unofficially go out of fashion back in 1984 thanks, in small part, to the self-aware Revenge of the Nerds movie? Of course, virginal basement dwellers like Ludlow still exist, but as we saw at the recent Comic-Con, au courant nerds these days are generally some of the most conscientious, intelligent and —I’m going to say it — stylish people you’ll ever meet.
This is the age of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. This is the age of the Oculus Rift and self-driving cars and robots that look and act like real people (not like the crummy robot in Rocky IV). This is the age of Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley and Mr. Robot. In the Emmy-winning House of Cards, President Underwood unwinds from geopolitics with Call of Duty and Monument Valley, and if you're honest with yourself that scenario seems plausible. Geeks and nerds and gamers aren't dwelling in basements. We run the show.
You see none of this in Pixels. None. Instead, Pixels opts for the lowest common denominator and, once again, hammers home the wrongheaded notion that people who enjoy games are somehow broken.
I’m not a pro gamer, not by a long stretch. But devotion to video games is a very real thing. Video games were never only a side-interest for me. As a kid, they were a source of endless fascination. As an adult, games helped me through some pretty lonely times.
I confess: I felt a little bit of that old voodoo again during the brief sections of the film that highlight gameplay from those older video games. It’s impossible now to imagine a world without video games, and, by extension, to gauge how much of an impact games like Centipede and Donkey Kong had on our lives. They were brightly colored dots displayed on antiquated monitors housed inside rickety plywood boxes.
But to me, those machines were legitimate magic objects. And the mystery of video games continues to amaze me: how they work, how they’re created, how they do the awesome things that they do. I saw a repairman open the backside of a Joust machine in 1989, and I could not stop looking at the shadow-filled darkness inside. From 'kill screens' (once again, see: The King of Kong) to the urban myth surrounding Polybius (see: Ernest Cline's Armada), I’m still learning new things about these ancient machines.
In Pixels, Brenner is “good” at games because he recognizes the “patterns.” This doesn’t say anything new; worse, it doesn’t tell us anything interesting. Yet this is the only moment in the entire movie where the filmmakers attempt to articulate anything at all about what it's really like to play a game.
That’s not good enough.
I suppose expecting more from Sandler, the unofficial king of Lowest Common Denominator Land (sorry, dad), was a mistake. Pixels doesn’t “lift the veil” for my parents at all. Instead, it sneers at the very crowd it expects will dutifully help it climb the box office charts. And that’s a game no self-respecting gamer should play.