Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Pixels




8 Bits &  Pieces

Pixels
2015 USA/China/Canada
Directed by Chris Columbus
UK cinema release print.

Blimey. You know, I never expected to be extolling the virtues of an Adam Sandler movie on here, let alone find myself sitting through one but actually... this one surprised the hell out of me. Now, the reason for my shock comes from the fact that I’ve really never even seen an Adam Sandler movie before this one. I’m not the biggest fan of out and out comedy (just give me The Marx Brothers or Woody Allen and I’ll stick to those) and whenever I’ve seen a movie trailered for a film starring Sandler, I’ve basically just never been interested. Not his fault... they just don’t look good the way they are marketed.

The trailer for this one was a lot different, though. For starters, Sandler seemed to be headlining more of an ensemble piece here (which you’ll find is true... once you see the full movie) but, way beyond that, the one thing which caused me to be curious about this was... it had a load of the games I used to play when I was a kid in it. Technology has moved too fast in recent years but let me take you back to my childhood for a few paragraphs...

I was born in 1968 and, about 4 years later, amusement arcades were hit with the first proper electronic video game... and it wasn’t more than a year or two before this was also sold as a plug in unit which you could attach to your own television set and play whenever you wanted. Called Pong, it was a pretty simple, black and white game. You basically had two bats made of pixels, plus a ball, and you had to try and hit the ball past your opponent’s bat. Now that might not sound like much to you but, for that point in recent history... it was mind blowing. You actually had something which was really just a picture on your screen which you could actually remotely control with a little twiddly knob on a control unit and with an on-screen bat that would go up and down depending on how you twiddled that knob. Seriously? How was this possible? This was like magic. It blew everyone’s minds I think... not just the kids. We were surely at the very end point of a technological wonderland here... we could never imagine mankind ever progressing past this place in history as far as electronics were concerned.

Then, in 1978, Space Invaders was launched into arcades and bars.

There was a cabinet version and a table version where you could rest your drinks next to the screen while looking down at the table in whatever bar or cafe you happened to be in and, for the expensive price of 10 pence per session, play out your three lives to your heart’s content. And we were all like... What new sorcery is this? How could this be? How could anyone manage to invent something even more mind bending to our laws of physics than Pong. What’s happening to the world?

And then that world just exploded.

By 1982 I had one of Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum machines to play games on and my folks had a Philips G7000 (known in the US as a Magnavox Odyssey², apparently). Everyone was playing video arcade style games, both in the games’ native environment and also in their own homes. We all just couldn’t believe what was happening and it consumed our lives for a while.

And this is what Pixels is all about, in a way. It’s based/inspired on a 2010 short film by director Patrick Jean and I have to say that I haven’t seen that short... yet. However, this longer version is pretty entertaining in that’s it’s a loving homage to the old video arcade games of our past which took over our lives, to a certain extent, way back in the 1980s.

The film starts off in 1982 with the young versions of the film’s four main male protagonists as they compete in the Arcade Video Game championships of the world. Adam Sandler’s character Brenner, along with the young versions of characters played by Kevin James (Cooper) and Josh Gad (Ludlow) are beaten out in the final by Peter Dinklage’s Eddie, as he and Brenner compete in a tie-break game of Donkey Kong. Meanwhile, the video games manufacturers send a time capsule of their arcade games into space as a means of shouting mankind out to other beings... hmmm. Okay.

And then we cut to the modern day and everything about this film which is already on a whimsical level completely crosses over into complete unreality but... that’s okay because it’s a way of the filmmakers setting up a crazy premise without it seeming insulting to the audience’s collective intelligence. For example, Brenner has grown up to be a low paid employee of a corporation called NERD, whose job it is to go to people’s homes and set up their newly purchased technology such as sound systems and computer games etc. Here he meets a military expert called Violet, played by the always brilliant Michelle Monaghan, and this sets up the film’s romantic sub-plot (of course). His mate, Cooper, then calls him on the phone and he goes to see him... in the White House... because Cooper, it turns out, grew up to be the president of the United States.

So I guess the tactic here is that, if you’re going to ask the audience to buy into a plot which is totally insane and incredible to begin with, you might as well prep them for it before hand. If you can accept the fact that Kevin James is playing the President of the USA but still finds time to hang out with his low income buddy from their arcade playing days... well, then anything they ask you to accept after this will seem just a little more credible as a premise to work with, I suspect. And I have to say... it worked for me.

If you don’t already know the plot yet, aliens have found the time capsule sent out in 1982 and see it as a challenge to a battle for the destruction of the planet Earth. So they start attacking us with real life versions of our 1982 video games. Each battle counts as one out of three lives lost for the losing side and, if the losing side is planet Earth... no more planet. We get pixilated for good. So it’s up to the President and his old pals... plus Peter Dinklage’s Eddie, who they pull out from jail where he’s doing hard time for income tax evasion... to save the Earth and battle the aliens in giant, life threatening video games, aided by the light cannons and other inventions rigged up in a hurry by Violet and her robot helper.

Now this all sounds fun but with a movie premise that insane, which gives every adult kid with a part of their heart left in 1980s retro-gaming a little whoop for joy, there’s got to be a down side to a movie like this, right? They’re probably going to screw it up or it’ll be too dull or unwatchable but, I have to say... and I really didn’t expect to be saying this about Pixels, this movie is absolutely as entertaining and fun as its initial set up would want you to believe. I don’t know how the film-makers managed to pull this off with such panache but, bearing in mind it’s a broad comedy, it’s mostly done with a certain amount of taste and, absolutely, with a lot of loving homage to those old arcade classics that made our hearts race as the speeding, heartbeat rhythms of the games caused our fingers and thumbs to punch harder at those big, round buttons.

Now this won’t be a film which will appeal to everybody, I’m sure, but if you remember these games from your youth or you are happy to buy into a premise as silly as the one pitched by the film and then run with it... well then you should have a pretty good time with this one. The pacing is speedy but not so fast that the various characters don’t have time to breathe and the performances in here are all great. The action scenes are easy to follow too... something of a challenge in the Earth bound sections of the final battle sequence to be sure... so the coverage and editing, not to mention the groovy special effects of various 8-bit characters who people my age will know and love, are all first rate and you don’t need to worry about not being able to follow anything in this one.

There are also some amazing cameo appearances here as well such as Max Headroom (voiced by the man himself, Matt Frewer... and it’s the first time Max has actually been computer generated as opposed to a post-make-up manipulated Frewer illusion of the same), Serena Williams, Martha Stewart and Dan Akroyd.  Plus you have some great supporting actors in this too, such as Brian Cox and Sean Bean, who become slight problems to our heroes as they try to save the world. There are also some interesting ‘manipulated cameos' from the likes of Ricardo Montalban and Herv√© Villechaize (to name just two of the dead celebrities brought back for the film) which also bring a smile to the face as the aliens use old 1980s TV personalities to communicate with the people of Earth.

And of course, there are a whole slew of video game characters turning up in this movie too... such as Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger and the lovable Q*Bert. It has to be said there are also a fair amount of anachronisms for the time these arcade games are supposed to date from too... Paperboy was not as early as 1982, for example, but he makes a prominent appearance in this film’s final battle, along with a few others not quite ‘of their time’ in this movie. However, I guess with such an unreal film that has Kevin James as the President and a... gosh... a female Prime Minister (some of the action is set in London, England)... well I think I’m prepared to overlook a little historical accuracy in this case.

And that’s really all I’m going to say about this one. Pixels is a nice comical movie with some lovely performances, some ‘not too uncomfortable’ comedy moments, some relatively ‘good taste’ decisions (for the most part... I really didn’t need to see Q*Bert wet himself in fear) and, all in all, a great time at the cinema in a loving homage to the video games which made some of us what we are today (as shallow as 8-bit characters, I would guess). I’m not even going to get into a lather that the video games in this film are made up of voxels (which are 3D) and not actually pixels (which are 2D) because I, quite surprisingly, really enjoyed this movie. So if old style retro arcade games are your thing... you really might want to give this one a watch at some point. It’s kinda fun.

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