In 2010, Johnny Alves and Benjamin Darras produced a short film directed by Patrick Jean. It is a two minute film in which a man discards an old TV by the trash, and from that TV, a cloud of colorful pixels are released and fly over New York City and split into various directions. Eventually they turn into 1980s arcade game characters including Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Tetris tiles, Frogger, and Donkey Kong. The characters turn everything they touch into pixels, and eventually the entire planet turns into one giant cubic pixel as it slowly drifts through space.
The short film was so creative and interesting, I completely understand wanting to turn it into a full length feature – and really, Chris Columbus (Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter 1 and 2, Percy Jackson 1) seems like the right choice. Even the plot seems like a good idea.
The movie starts in 1982, and we are introduced to Brenner, his buddy Cooper and their love for arcade games. Brenner is naturally very good because he can see and recognize the patterns of the games. They enter the world championship of arcade games where they meet another buddy, Ludlow, and Brenner loses to dominate player Eddie Plant, causing him to spiral into what seems to be a lifelong depression about not winning a videogame competition? Footage of the competition is included into a capsule that is blasted into space in the hopes of sending communication to any other species out in space.
We jump up to present time, and find that Brenner is currently working as a Nerd Squad (did Best Buy not want to join in the product placement, and would not let him be called a Geek Squad member?) employee and is still hanging out with Cooper who is now the president of the United States (no, seriously, Kevin James plays the president). Cooper continues to remind Brenner how smart he is and that he could be doing more with his life. Well, Brenner responds to a call to help set up a system for a woman named Violet and her son – she’s just been left by her husband. Brenner bonds with her over a bottle of wine and stories about their spouses leaving them. When Brenner attempts to kiss her, she gets upset, and he calls her snobby. He is then summoned by the president because Guam was just attacked by 1980s video game characters that destroyed a military base – one soldier was taken. Brenner recognizes the pattern, and attempts to give everyone advice – it’s revealed that Violet is the head of DARPA, and is also at the White House.
Ludlow returns to let Brenner know that he found a message that this attack was from aliens who misinterpreted the message they received years ago, they learn that there will be three attacks, whoever wins each attack gets a ‘trophy’. If the aliens win they will take over the earth, if earth wins the aliens will leave. This is apparently not enough warning because the Taj Mahal is destroyed by Pong and a young man is taken as the trophy.
The president has Brenner and Ludlow prep the military for the next attack. They head to England to fight off Centipede. They are successful and the dog from Duck Hunt is delivered as a trophy.
DARPA continues to prep, and they suddenly learn of their next attack – PacMan shows up in New York City – so Brenner, Ludlow, and a recently released from prison Eddie Plant battle PacMan in mini-cooper Ghosts. They win this one too and get Q-Bert as a trophy. The president throws a part to celebrate their victory –they receive another message that states they cheated, and will be punished, and the aliens send down everything to attack Washington. Brenner, Plant, Ludlow, Cooper and Violet all join forces to battle everything that is being thrown at them in order to save the world. Spoiler alert – they win by getting pixelated up into the alien mothership and defeating Donkey Kong.
Columbus does a great job with the action – during the battles, the movie looks absolutely amazing! I think the majority of the negative issues come in with the live-action people in the movie.
- I like some Adam Sandler movies (okay, very few), but he really seems to be half asleep in this movie. He plays Brenner as snarky, annoyed, and bitter. I suppose that’s fine, but honestly he also seems fairly disinterested and sarcastic. That works great in the throw-away movies he makes with his friends – Grown-Ups, for example, but here – it really does not work.
- Kevin James plays President Cooper? I don’t even know where to start there. Okay, since the movie begins with him as president – let’s say he ran a really great campaign and had some really great ideas. But now he’s a complete buffoon – there’s a scene where he struggles to read to kids because he’s stumbling over words. That’s played as a joke and is supposed to be hilarious. Also – Jane Krakowski is cast as his wife and has almost no scenes/lines.
- Michelle Monaghan plays Violet and honestly, she’s better than what she’s given, and she does the best with what she’s given, but her depression at just being left by her husband is played for laughs, and then Sandler constantly refers to her as snobby. She gets to go back at him with some insults of her own, but not as many as he throws at her. I really had no idea her character name was Violet until I looked it up on IMDB. I don't recall anyone calling her by name in the movie.
- Peter Dinklage is great, but then he always is. Again – I feel like he’s the only one who understood the tone completely. He’s way way way over-the-top, but that works. If only some of the others had over-committed on this level.
- Josh Gad is more talented than he’s allowed to be in this as well. Ludlow is played for one-note anti-nerd jokes. I feel like if he was given a little bit more freedom he could have brought more to this – but I’ve thought that about the last few movies I’ve seen him in, so maybe not?
Okay – so by now, you’ve heard the overwhelmingly negative reviews of this movie. Listen, it's not horrible, really - it's not. But, it's not great, and what’s really upsetting is that it really had the potential to be something really fun! Let’s start with the good – the bones of the story are actually pretty good – and you could see how that would make for an interesting movie. Also – the graphics and visuals are amazing. Really – the movie looks fantastic during the alien attack sequences. There is something really thrilling about seeing giant pixelated versions of arcade characters tearing through the world. Pac-Man in particular is just spectacular.
Now – the bad. Who is this movie for? The tone was childish, and all the trailers before it were for kids movies, but that can’t be right, because kids today probably won’t get any of the references to 80s games. This is actually perfectly illustrated in the movie because Violet’s son is perplexed by the idea of games having ‘three lives’. Kids today and their console games are used to having unlimited lives. So – in theory, the movie could be for people my age who fondly remember the 80s arcade games, but then why is it so juvenile, why not fully commit to the nonsense and make it rated R? Also – there are issues with the tone. It goes from over-the-top silly to wanting us to buy the sense of danger and the romance between certain characters – but none of that fits well together. Honestly, watching this movie after watching Sharknado 3 presented an interesting problem. This movie actually needed some Sharknado-ing. If more of the people in it had played it completely over-the-top crazy or with Ian Ziering levels of over-committment, it may have come off with a more unified tone. Dinklage is right on; and actually – so are Brian Cox and Sean Bean (guys, seriously, Brian Cox and Sean Bean are in this). Josh Gad is close, but no one else seems clear on how silly they should be behaving.
Another tone issue, is this movie pro-nerd or anti-nerd? I would never consider Adam Sandler a nerd; really – he and his buddies (you know who his buddies are, they’re the guys in all his movies) seem like the guys who bullied the nerds in high school. They’re the class clowns who made fun of the kids who wanted to play video games. Even in this movie – they are supposed to be playing ‘nerds’ however, they are constantly making anti-nerd jokes and comments. Gad’s character Ludlow is the nerdiest of the bunch, and is the butt of plenty of Sandler/James jokes. Essentially the core of the story is Sandler’s character, Brenner, is trying to find redemption for the competition he lost as a child which has hung over his whole life? I can’t figure that out – it’s repeatedly mentioned how smart he is and that he could be doing more, so is saving the world is his redemption for that? He and Violet’s son Matt have two scenes discussing games, and Matt thinks Brenner needs to update to modern games and just “pretend he’s the guy and doesn’t want to die”. Seriously – that seems to be Brenner's character arc - moving past studying the patterns to embrace a more intrinsic style of play, and maybe if Sandler had played that with a little more joy...?
This might be a tone issue, or a story issue, but what about the aliens? I get that we are focused on our side of the story – but who are the aliens, what do they really look like? What do they want? The only information we get about them is from Q-Bert, who states they are evil and want to conquer, but who is telling us that? Q-Bert? What did he look like before he was Q-Bert? There’s a few holes there, but maybe we’re just supposed to ignore them. Also, I would like to slap whoever thought that it would be funny to have Q-Bert pee. You heard me right.
Also – the ‘romantic’ side stories. We’re supposed to believe that Violet’s character would fall for Sandler’s? She’s the head of DARPA, but is completely thrown away as just "the chick". Admittedly, at least she is not a ‘damsel in distress’ and does get to do her own bit of rescuing of her son and other characters in the end, but still – it was annoying how one-dimensional her character was. That's probably a small part of a larger whole issue. It’s a Sandler movie, and like all of them, they are not made for women. Either he thinks he has no female fans, or he doesn’t care about them, so women are always underdeveloped in his movies – or played as jokes, or just flat out un-important. We’ve already established that the movie treats the female characters poorly. Ludlow’s character is demonstrated as a child to be in love with Lady Lisa – a fictional game character. Once Brenner re-encounters Ludlow, he realizes that Ludlow is still in love with her. So inevitably, during the final battle, Ludlow encounters her – they fight for a few seconds, when Ludlow falls to his knees professing his love for her (she’s not pixels for some reason), and she decides that she’s into him (she has no lines – none!), stops fighting and kisses him.
After the final fight, she’s taken back with the other creatures, but Q-Bert, because he was a trophy, stays. Because Ludlow is depressed, Q-Bert changes into Lady Lisa (how and why?). So Ludlow gets to keep this ‘trophy’ and they get married and have kids – which is shown in the post-credits sequence. There’s four of them and they are all Q-Berts. I have no words for that. Also – along those lines, one of the jokes is that Plant’s character has demands when they get him out of prison – one of those demans is for a three way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in the Lincoln bedroom – seriously. The president says no, but guess what Plant gets as the movie is ending? I shit you not.
It’s so disappointing because it could have been good – or at least way more fun. Honestly, just watch the short film a few times – until you can rent this and fast forward through the parts with the humans in it.
5 out of 10 – Gained points for the graphics – especially the Tetris Bricks removing floors of a building at a time – easily my favorite thing! Lost points for everything else. There has been some downright outrage about this movie, I'm not outraged, I'm just disappointed.
Bonus Video 1: It’s a widely held belief that no video game movie has been any good – personally, I loved the Mortal Kombat movie:
Bonus Video 2: On the flip side of that, there was a Street Fighter movie made...it certainly was not good. But I sure do own the soundtrack - hey, it features a Deion Sanders track!
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews: