★ ★ ★
When this critic was little, there used to be an independently run video arcade and pizza joint in the Putty Hill Plaza on Belair Road in Baltimore, where the décor included cafeteria-orange carpeted walls and the tall 8-bit video-game cabinets were crowded together in a dense warren like a bleeping, blooping topiary maze. The place smelled like greasy pizza and overheated circuits, and in the midst of other overstimulated kids eager to feed their fistfuls of hot quarters into Pac-Man or Joust, it was hard to imagine a happier place.
Many Gen X-ers suffer “À la recherche du Tempest perdu”-style reveries when it comes to classic video games, especially when they are seen in the wild in their native and endangered arcade habitat. There was something so cool about them, and media theorist Marshall McLuhan probably would have agreed: His famous model categorized media as either being hot (served up to the viewer with little participation needed to make visual sense of it, like the fanatically rendered and realistic games of today) or cool (requiring lots of viewer effort, involvement, and imagination). Alarmists who argued that video games killed kids’ imaginations clearly never placed the totality of their yearnings, tensions, and glee into an avatar as abstract as the glowing square that represented “you” in Atari’s Adventure.
That feeling lives on in Pixels—it’s not there often enough, but there are brief, shining moments that will make the hearts of moviegoers of a certain age sing with the exultant memory of the electric vitality found behind cathode-ray screens. It’s thrilling to watch the night sky grow dotted with crystalline, candy-colored mushroom nubs, which herald the slithering descent of the incandescent, pixilated centipede from the game of the same name, as Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) stands on the lawn below, ready to protect Earth with his multibarreled “light gun.”
This is the moment Brenner has been waiting for since 1982, when the title of Best Game Champion was snatched from his teenage fingertips by Eddie Plant (played as an adult by a mulleted Peter Dinklage). But recordings of that tournament were sent off into space, where aliens interpreted them as a threat. Now they’ve sent their response: iconic characters like Frogger and Pac-Man, reincarnated as voracious, gigantic monsters assembled from particles of light (since the particles are three-dimensional, they’re not pixels but voxels; somewhere, a gamer is scoffing). With the help of his former childhood buddy (and current U.S. president) Will Cooper (Kevin James), tubby conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), and DARPA bigwig and romantic interest Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), Brenner must meet every challenge these arcade freaks throw at him—even when they leave the designated “game board” and plow through the streets of New York City.
The (Sega?) genesis of this film was a fanciful but skimpy two-and-a-half-minute short of the same name by French director Patrick Jean, and that’s one of Pixels’ glaring problems: The fun parts, in which the video games come to life, feel like they occupy less than 15 minutes total of the run time. The rest of the story is padded out and watered down with gratuitous subplots about the love/hate courtship between Brenner and Van Patten and the buffoonish president’s fall-down-go-boom high jinks. Who exactly is the audience for this movie? Too-dumb-for-the-Three Stooges gags, like Army colonels hugging each other out of fright, share screen space with jokes about threesomes, scenes of binge drinking, and lines like “I’m going to build a slut-seeking missile” and “I made that game my bitch” that will make some parents cringe. There was room to surround the undeniably beautiful video-game scenes with moments of nostalgic wit, but Pixels is, unfortunately, mostly a long, dreary slog.