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May 15, 2015

An Episode In Gaming: My Thoughts On The Upcoming Film Pixels

This week, I’m doing something a little different. Instead of looking at a movie’s complete story and giving my thoughts about it, I’ll review a few things related to an upcoming movie that will be released in September this year. You might have heard about that movie, called Pixels. It will be directed by Chris Columbus (who has directed many great films) and will star Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, and Jane Krakowski. My memory isn’t that good, I’m just going by the Wikipedia page. Anyway, I’m conflicted about this upcoming movie, and so I decided to spend one post talking about it, instead of doing a VGFlicks segment as usual.

Now, you may have noticed the title doesn’t say “VGFlicks”, it rather says “An Episode In Gaming”. Why? Well, I’ve been reviewing movies about video games for a while now, and I’m thinking about expanding my scope of reviews to TV shows and cartoons. There are TV shows that dedicate only one or a few episodes to video games, and there are shows that revolve completely around them. In the future, I might do more articles on TV shows about video games. I’ve been searching for a good title for this new segment of Planned All Along, and so far, I have: Gamepisodes, An Episode In Gaming (the one I went with for now), Gaming Shows, Shows Gaming, TVGaming, VGTV… Tell me which one you prefer!

So, Pixels, the 2015 movie, is itself based on Pixels, a 2010 short film that has received nothing but praise. Among others, it won the Annecy Crystal for Best Short Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Well, allow me to be a little more negative. First off, here’s the short film.

Video games, feeling abandoned, somehow come out of a TV screen in a giant mass of pixels, which slowly transform into what they looked like on the screen, and set out to destroy New York City. They’re completely unopposed, because each and every one of them, heroes, villains and lifeless objects alike, are participating in this. It ends with Earth turning into a planet-sized cube, a “pixel” if you will, and it’s not farfetched to assume that all life on the planet has been utterly eradicated.


Is that really how you want to picture retro video games? As killers? As world annihilators?

These are not the space invaders you'd think of.
“This guy doesn’t want to play with us? EXTERMINATE ALL HUMANS NOW!” Flimsiest reason I’ve ever heard. Disproportionate retribution doesn’t even begin to describe it. Holy crap. There is not a single thing those pixelated things could say that would justify any of this. This short makes me feel like it was directed by Roland Emmerich, who got fed up of destroying the Earth in each one of his movies with aliens and natural disasters. Independence Day? The Day After Tomorrow? 2012? Hah! Those made too much sense. Let’s have an army of pixel creatures destroy the planet this time! Three minutes should be more than enough!

Those Tetris pieces should be happy they have someplace to
go. They shouldn't attack humans!
And of course, while we’re at it, let’s observe the attacks. Space Invaders shoot from the skies, and the things struck by their projectiles turn into masses of blocks. Even taxis on the streets, though once they are just a pile of blocks, there’s no human to be seen… It gets worse. It’s made clear that some humans are going on with their daily lives, while others are observing the invasion. Yeah, um… I can't stress this enough: I seriously don’t like the thought of video games killing humans. Especially considering they don’t have a valid excuse for doing so. Pac-Man appears in the subway tunnels and starts eating the subway. I suppose he didn’t want a submarine sandwich, so he went for the other kind of Subway… Tetris pieces start falling on a building; they form a line and a few floors of that building disappear… with everyone in it. Damn! The Pong paddles break a part of the Brooklyn Bridge, causing it to collapse. No! Fuck! Donkey Kong is attacking with barrels, and while that doesn’t excuse what he’s doing, he looks really nice in CGI. Frogger doesn’t participate to the destruction, he just crosses streets. At the end, a giant bomb explodes, slowly turning all of the buildings in the radius into pixels, and eventually the rest of New York City, and then… the planet, of course.

That’s what they call a retrogamer’s wet dream? It’s my nightmare!

I really don’t like the “plot” of this short, if we can even call this a “plot”. It just felt like a reason to show off the special effects, which I must admit are pretty impressive. That’s the best part about this short, in fact. Still, I don’t feel like I’m able to enjoy it to its full extent… But it’s still creative, I guess. That’s another good thing it’s got.

Now, the upcoming movie based on this short will follow the same story, except it will have good guys and a force to defend Earth against the invaders… and it’s also giving a better basic story: These “video games” are actually aliens attacking Earth because they misinterpreted the product of human imagination that we sent in space, thinking these games to be a declaration of war. Hey, it’s silly, but it's already a little better. Know which series also had a similar idea? Futurama. Yep, Futurama did it even before the 2010 short film.

There were two episodes of Futurama called the Anthologies of Interest. In those episodes, the cast of Futurama asks questions to a machine that lets them see what it would be like if the world was different. In the second episode, Bender asks what it would be like if he was a human, which comprises the first short. The third short is Leela dreaming of a mashup of the Futurama and Wizard of Oz universes. For the second short, Fry asks what it would be like if the world was more like a video game. Thus, we get a video game Futurama universe.

It starts off with the Planet Express crew (same as always – Fry, Leela, Bender) breaking apart Asteroids in space, then coming back in their (oddly-invisible) ship. They enter the break room, where the (rather old-school) television shows the Earth president, Richard Nixon’s head, with an ambassador from a planet called Nintenduu 64. I’d rather not think about what happened to the other 63. Turns out that ambassador is none other than Donkey Kong. The cubic ape turns hostile, attacking Nixon’s head with a barrel before escaping. Mario, who just happens to be the Earth ambassador from Italy, goes after him.

Funfact: General Colin Pac-Man listens to music that goes
Since Fry is from the 20th century, he has played a ton of video games, so he’s considered an expert on how to defeat the Nintendians. …I know it makes no sense. Just roll with it. Brought to the army base, Fry meets General Colin Pac-Man (hey, at least here he’s a good guy). Fry doesn’t really have time to give his knowledge of the Nintendians, because the White House gets attacked. Pac-Man and the Planet Express crew (Fry, Leela, Bender, and for some reason, Zoidberg) run away in the escape tunnels, which are shaped exactly like a Pac-Man level. How convenient. Fry gets himself killed, but he had an extra life. He’s fine. The group comes out near the Planet Express HQ, and a tank is provided.

The aliens attack in pure Space Invaders fashion, and Fry controls the tank to shoot lasers upwards and destroy the dozens of enemy ships. For some reasons, the space invaders are led by Lrrr, a ruthless leader in normal Futurama episodes, though he’s normally from a planet called Omicron Persei 8. (To be fair, the Anthology of Interest shorts in Futurama are just like the Treehouse of Horror segments in The Simpsons; they change everything that has to be changed for this plot to work, even if that means removing all common sense.) Fry does pretty well for most of the “game”, though General Pac-Man gets killed right after saying he was gonna retire soon. Gosh, when you say some terms are cursed in the world of show-business. “MacBeth”, “break a leg”, “soon retired”….

Sadly, Fry is unable to defeat the last ship, so it lands near Planet Express. Lrrr comes out with numerous game characters (including Q*Bert). Turns out there’s only one thing these invaders want: Quarters to do their laundry. Okay… Does that excuse the destruction of the White House? Does that excuse shooting the city? Does that excuse killing Colin Pac-Man? Anyway, the short ends as the two groups discuss a way to solve this peacefully: By doing their laundry all at once. …Remember to separate the colors!

Seems like flimsy excuses are the norm. As long as gamers get their share of references to retro gaming, and their load of destruction, they won’t complain, amirite? Well, no! I’m not that kind of guy! I’m a critic! A reviewer! And while I’m a lot more lax than a lot of reviewers (I have a long list of guilty pleasures), I’m not gonna fall for stuff that would be found in Michael Bay flicks! (You know, an appeal to nostalgia and lots of mindless destruction… That's what Bay's been doing with Transformers, and you know it!)

Good thing he had it. We can't affors to waste 30 minutes
looking for a blue key in a giant military complex.
So, yeah, I’m not quite sure about this Futurama segment. It’s a lot better, though, since the references become characters in and of themselves, and not just mindless killing machines. The Planet Express ship is replaced by the ship from Asteroids, Pac-Man is a general and Donkey Kong is apparently an ambassador. But I like it already a lot more. And besides, this being a Futurama episode means we follow the series' main characters. Heroes to root for! There was no such thing in the short film. And when there are no heroes, how can you enjoy something? Take any media of fiction, remove all the main characters. No more heroes! What you get is pretty awful, because there’s no one to rally behind.

"@*!?;¤@" (Calm down, Donkey!)
And at least, it’s funny. Plenty of little details about retro video games get lampooned here. I’d say, more than anything else, what really helps this short is that it has a plot. Yes, yes that’s it. The short film Pixels has no plot. That’s why it doesn’t work for me. It’s just an excuse to get that destruction on the screen. However, those who make comparisons like to say that both the short film Pixels and the upcoming movie kinda ripped off Futurama. I disagree. As I proved, the Futurama segment “Raiders of the Lost Arcade” is different enough from the concept of Pixels. Sure, it’s still plenty of video game references, but as far as I’m concerned, none of the villains in the Futurama segment turned everything, both lifeless objects and life forms, into cubes!

Now, how does that all tie in with Pixels, the 2015 film?

Well, I made an entire post because… well… it looks promising! This is a good trailer! I tend to prefer to watch the movie before passing judgment, but there’s one thing I know: If I think the trailer sucks, the odds are much higher that the film will suck. I mean, a trailer is made so that you can see all the best bits from the film! So when you go watch the movie, you go watch the bits that are a little less good. (That’s a joke, by the way.) I think the effects are a lot better here than they were in the short film. Having a Hollywood budget kinda helps. It’s still the same basic idea of video game creatures and things attacking Earth, but the scope of things is greater; here, the entire world is in danger from the start. In the short film, only New York was being attacked, which made its ending even more annoying to me. Bonus points for stating that the video game attackers were created by aliens, too. Sure, that was also in the Futurama segment, but it makes more sense than in the original short… where the things just come out of the TV, for no reason. I mean, it’s either aliens or a portal to another dimension. Or a secret experiment done by the American Army. Because, you know, those are three scenarios common in science-fiction.

I also like the idea of humans fighting against the destruction, by adopting the methods used by the good guys (and sometimes the villains) of the original games. Getting four small cars to act as the “ghosts” to corner the giant Pac-Man rampaging through the city? Pretty cool idea. I don’t know how they’ll deal with Space Invaders, but we’ll see that when the film comes out. The trailer also reveals that humans are, in fact, very much in danger here. Look at Pac-Man eating the fire truck. A fireman barely escapes it. I don’t want to think about what happened to the guy who was driving. Because that’s what was overlooked in the original short film: HUMANS ARE KILLED BY THE DOZENS, THE HUNDREDS, PERHAPS THE THOUSANDS, and we’re supposed to treat it like it’s no big deal. A million is a statistic, indeed. The full-length movie will show us things for what they REALLY are: That the story presented in the short film is actually terrifying. Also, about the scene where Adam Sandler says that they’re all going to die… I hate to spoil it for you, but they probably won’t. This is a comedy, first and foremost, not a horror film. I’m willing to bet a Canadian dollar that it won’t end with humanity eradicated, because Sandler and Co. will have managed to defeat the invaders. What kind of comedy ends in a downer? A last thing about the trailer, I find the last joke (with Pac-Man’s creator) hilarious. That bit was great.

Now, what I have a problem with is that this is a Happy Madison production. I don’t review movies all the time, so I don’t speak about production companies that often… but Happy Madison is kind of infamous in the film industry. Adam Sandler has been doing the same shtick for a while now: An overall nice guy who can be a jerk sometimes, frequently a father, often a man-child to boot. Pixels will be Happy Madison’s (I think) second foray into science-fiction territory, if we count Click, which I actually kinda liked for its message and how it was brought up. Seriously, between all the plush-humping and the wise cracks, there was quite an emotional weight to that one. I liked that.

Let's hope Pac-Man will not eat Sandler's career whole.
This is different from a lot of roles and movies Sandler has been assigned to in the past years. Sure, he’s done a bit of voice-acting (Hotel Transylvania, a great film), and this has helped his career for a bit, but he has also released some major stinkers in the past years. Jack and Jill is seen as one of the worst films ever released, mocked as a textbook example of bad comedy, and That’s My Boy was barely better. If better at all. Hell, Adam Sandler got flak recently during the production of Ridiculous Six, where actors of Amerindian heritage saw their culture being treated poorly, and as a result many of them walked off set… As such, these days, I’m careful when discussing Adam Sandler, because I’m half-hopeful that we’ll get a quality product, half-afraid that we’ll get crap. I’m on the fence. I have no idea whether or not Pixels will be good. I hope that it is, because we need more good movies about video games. Sadly, while I found the trailer interesting, I can just think of too many ways in which this movie could end up sucking. Comedy is not as easy to do as it appears to be. That’s why I remain careful.

Be assured, however, that as a fan of video games, I will go and watch Pixels in theaters. I’m taking the risk. Now, whether or not I’ll like it is up in the air. Maybe I’ll review it in 2016, or in 2017, for this site. Who knows. Either way, I invite you to watch the film when it comes out in theaters (or wait a few months for the DVD or Blu-Ray release, or when it's avilable on Netflix), and see for yourself if it’s a good one. I’m gonna go watch it, that’s for sure. And I’ll be sure to give you my thoughts about it.

Next week… Mario Kart DS. Better get this over with. Sigh…

...this is gonna suck for me...