Is nostalgia a valid reason to hate a film? More specifically, is nostalgia a valid reason to hate Pixels?
I’d argue no, but that most certainly doesn’t make Pixels good. It’s a bad film, and the summer of 2015 has already given us many that are far better.
But that doesn’t mean Pixels is poorly made, which is going to prove to be a crucial distinction. Pixels will probably make a lot of money and be a hit with audiences because it resembles other popular films. It’s an off-the-rack Adam Sandler comedy that looks like a toy commercial with action beats and special effects that are halfway decent. At the very least, it’s more coherent than Transformers 4.
The plot is relatively straightforward. Sandler plays Sam Brenner, an arcade prodigy turned low-level tech geek called into action when an alien force invades Earth dressed in 1980s cosplay (the aliens interpreted a time capsule featuring 1982 arcade footage as a declaration of war). Kevin James plays Brenner’s childhood buddy and unconvincing movie President Will Cooper. Michelle Monaghan plays the woman (more on that in a moment).
The result is a feel-good comedy in which the humor is viciously mean-spirited. You’re always laughing at someone instead of with someone (that someone is usually Josh Gad’s stereotypically maladjusted nerd Ludlow Lamonsoff), which often means that nobody is laughing at all. Pixels consistently leaves characters to squirm and the end of a joke, making it feel cruel and stripping it of anything resembling an emotional center. There’s no heart or warmth. Sandler’s Brenner treats everyone like an asshole and we’re supposed to love him for it.
His juvenile bitterness trickles down to the rest of the cast. James is a buffoon. Monaghan is a tech genius, which would be laudable if she didn’t get dragged into petty he-only-pushed-you-because-he-likes-you playground squabbles with Brenner. Peter Dinklage seems to be having fun as Brenner’s rival Eddie Plant, but he’s playing an overtly misogynistic and belligerent asshole (as opposed to one we’re supposed to find endearing), so it’s kind of hard to root for him.
In other words, there are plenty of valid reasons to hate Pixels. I’m ambivalent only because the film’s treatment of Pac-Man is not one of them. In fact, the video game component is the only thing that makes the movie watchable, an observation that probably places me in the critical minority.
Unlike the rest of the film, the action scenes in which video game characters attack didn’t make me want to turn my head away, partly because that’s when the characters stop talking and partly because some of them are legitimately entertaining. It’s not the cleverest use of the source material, but the 3D Centipede battle makes 3D Centipede look like a lot of fun. The same is true for 3D Donkey Kong, which resembles the offspring of American Gladiators and Nickelodeon Guts. It makes you wish that virtual reality would hurry up and get here so we can rediscover these games in a futuristic arcade.
Would I prefer to have someone other than Adam Sandler at the controls? Sure. Pixels is a quick cash grab that leaves a lot of good ideas on the table. But I can’t muster any genuine outrage about it. That’s what happens when the suits adapt niche characters to appeal to the widest possible audience. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong are corporate entities that exist solely to generate profit for shareholders. There’s no point in getting upset when someone uses them for that purpose.
No, not even when that someone is a carnival barker like Adam Sandler.
The thing is, I’m a Games Editor rather than a Film Editor, so I feel like I’m supposed to hate Pixels on principle. But I truly don’t care that it uses voxels instead of pixels. Evaluating Pixels based purely on its cinematic merits, the video game element is easily the best thing about it. Most people in the audience won’t notice the inaccuracies.
However, I do care about human beings, and that’s what makes me uncomfortable about the reaction to Pixels. The Internet is already frothing over the film’s perceived disrespect of Donkey Kong, to the point that I haven’t seen nearly enough attention given to its disrespect of women, which is something that we desperately can’t afford to overlook.
(SPOILERS from this point forward.)
Thanks to the collision of game tropes and film tropes, Pixels heavily reinforces the idea that women are things. If you’re good at video games, you will be rewarded with beautiful women, a point that is made explicit at the end of the film when Josh Gad marries Lady Lisa, a sprite that only seconds earlier is literally described as a trophy that he gets to keep for completing a video game. She’s not real until that moment, but his pursuit of her is little more than stalking.
Serena Williams’ role is equally problematic. Dinklage’s Plant demands her as a prerequisite for his assistance, and while she initially finds him repulsive (the President of the United States complies with the request because bros, yo), she immediately succumbs to his nonexistent charms after he helps out during the final battle. Throughout the film the men display no redeeming qualities other than their skill at video games, and women rain from the sky as a result.
The message? As long as you display any kind of competence, the women you desire will willingly sleep with you regardless of their pre-existing feelings on the matter.
That’s what I hate about Pixels. It’s a hateful little film, but I don’t hate it because of infidelities to the source material as much as I hate it for the way that it conflates people with objects. At its worst, nostalgia encourages people to exert a sense of ownership over characters that belong to Namco-Bandai or Nintendo. Those characters then become quasi-religious idols, which becomes troublesome when slights against the fictional gods of Star Wars, Marvel, and Mario are bigger news stories the sufferings of actual human beings.
I’ve seen shades of that in the backlash to Pixels, which has focused more on Adam Sandler’s nerd credibility than it has on his movie’s advocacy of a reprehensible worldview. Those are the wrong priorities, mostly because only one of them should have any tangible impact on people’s lives. Though it’s possible to own trinkets that resemble Donkey Kong, his status as an icon is more universal. He doesn’t belong to me, and he never will. Pac-Man is attractive to Sandler precisely because the people who used to make fun of people like me now recognize him just as readily as I do.
So no, it doesn’t bother me that Pixels gets a few details wrong because it ultimately doesn’t matter. Batman is a lot of things to a lot of people and we all mock him for it, but he’s still beloved and commercially viable. Donkey Kong is similarly much bigger than this film. I can’t get angry because I don’t think a corporate mascot inherently deserves better, and well-adjusted people learn to let that go.
More importantly, that’s why it freaks me out when people attempt to violently defend their ownership of things they do not and cannot possess. Once that possessiveness takes hold, it becomes dangerously easy to redirect that thinking from inanimate objects to other human beings if we don’t regard them as sufficiently human. Pixels turns an army of video game sprites into a sentient invading force, and in the process gives digital effects more agency than women.
Those issues are at the root of Gamergate and the other controversies that have plagued gaming for the past year. In its eagerness to placate 80s nostalgia, Pixels uncritically encourages and glorifies a sense of entitlement that has led real world harm, and we need to move beyond that kind of behavior.
Thanks to its subject matter and its star, many people are determined to hate Pixels simply because it exists. They’ll hate it because they hate Adam Sandler, and they’ll hate it because it doesn’t treat Pac-Man with the reverence they think he deserves.
But Pixels hates people far more than it hates video games, and for that it deserves our condemnation. Our relationships to fictional properties are important because we infuse them with meaning, and someday someone will make a great movie that explores those relationships. The point is that that potential still exists. Nothing bad will happen because someone made a bad movie about Donkey Kong, and that’s worth remembering when selecting the targets for our ire.