Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Friday: Pixels (2015)

Pixels is an Adam Sandler film. Enough said. No? Ok, I’ll say more. First, let me say that the film isn’t nearly as bad as ALL the critics said. This thing literally had 100% negative ratings. It’s not that bad. But it’s not good either. What it is, is an excellent idea mis-executed in typical Adam Sandler fashion, and all the negatives that entails. What’s funny, is that I can’t tell you how to fix it. Why? Read on.


Imagine if we sent a radio signal into space and an advanced alien world saw it. Imagine if they mistook the images we sent them as a declaration of war or hostility and they decided to come wipe us out before we did something to them. Sounds like good but somewhat-clichéd science fiction, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more...

Imagine if the images we sent were actually from our videogames in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That’s a little more interesting, isn’t it? And what if the aliens use those videogames as a guideline for the rules of war, and what if the aliens have chosen to send electronically-made warriors who resemble the “warriors” in the games we sent and generally follow the same rules from the game. That sounds like it could make for a heck of an interesting and original comedy, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more...
What if this film also starred Adam Sandler and was basically an Adam Sandler film with Adam Sandler-style jokes about getting hit in the balls, fat guys obsessed with hot girls, flummoxed authority figures, and lots of lazy sight gags? Doesn’t that sound great? Yeah, I had the same thought.

Anyways, the plot is this: aliens are coming to kill us because we sent them images of our videogames, which they mistook as a declaration of war. They have created a set of rules using those videogames. Paul Blart Mall Cop is the President and he brings his friends, Adam Sandler, some fat guy, Peter Dinklage and some hot chick to fight the aliens. They win.
Why I Can’t Fix This Film

Before I talk about this film in any detail, let me say that the film wasn’t as bad as the critics said. It was good-natured. It had some decent laughs now and then too. Basically, it was an entertaining enough waste of time. My kids actually liked it a lot.

That said...

As a general rule, I’ve found space-based comedies to be on the dull side. More often than not, these films have a lot of promise at the outset, having picked creative setups in a rarely-touched field, but then they just seem to fall apart. It strikes me that where they typically fail is in a lack of sufficient affinity for science fiction that they can derive their humor from the science fiction premise.
To give an example, while I found Spaceballs to be funny generally, it still felt flat to me because it was all about non-science fiction jokes. It’s humor was Jewish or Joan Rivers or about black people’s hair. Sometimes it poked fun at Darth Vader, but not in any way that acted as a genuine parody of Star Wars. Worse though, I can’t recall a single bit of humor that would work for a science-fiction comedy. Essentially, this was a Mel Brooks film set against a Star Wars/Princess Bride veneer.

An even better example comes from Mars Attacks. This film is nothing but one running sight-gag. Basically, you’re supposed to laugh at the way the aliens look and the images of what they do – like a head swap between two characters. But there’s little humor in that film that derives from the actual premise of an alien invasion. Essentially, this film is a comedy about infidelity, a crazy president, and just some nonsense characters acting strangely. The aliens are a McGuffin to give these characters some justification for acting strangely. In fact, you could have replaced the aliens with Russians or zombies or even just a rumor of an invasion and almost nothing would have needed to change in the story.
That brings me to Pixels. Pixels has such potential. Think of its potential as an adult version of Wreck-It Ralph. If you saw Wreck-It Ralph, then you saw the amazing potential that a comedy like this has. And what made Wreck-It Ralph work was a combination of a world that was packed with wonderful nostalgic references, a character whose worldview, whose personality and whose limitations derived from that world and who needed to grow beyond those limitation, and a plot that truly felt like something that would happen in this videogame world. Pixels has none of that.

Pixels is an Adam Sandler film. It’s about Adam Sandler and his friends walking though a film ogling women and showing everybody up. You have “loveable loser” Sandler who has a unique talent – playing video games. You have the President of the United States, who is a personal friend of Sandler’s and is so incompetent that there’s no way he could ever be elected. This is Kevin James reprising his role as Paul Blart Mall Cop. You’ve got the fat guy who pines for any woman with big breasts. You’ve got the super hot chick who once dated Sandler and will want him back again once he becomes a hero. Only the Peter Dinklage character feels fresh and interesting, and he gets tossed aside except for two jokes.
The plot involves Paul Blart doing asinine things as other dignitaries stand around looking shocked at what he’s done to the presidency. It involves Sandler showing off to the military, to the media, and ultimately to the world. It involves the fat guy doing stupid things every time he sees a hot chick. Oh, and there are aliens.

Now, at times, the film does make good jokes about the aliens, and those are pretty funny. But again, they are basically sight gags – a cute electronic dog, seeing PacMan on a New York City street, a pretty funny joke involving Cubert, and seeing Cubert wet himself. In terms of the premise itself, however, there’s almost nothing about it that becomes part of the humor. The one exception that comes to mind is when Dinklage somehow manages to use cheat codes in real life. Beyond that though, you could have swapped out the aliens for alligators and nothing would have changed.

As a result of this, Pixels feels like an average Adam Sandler film, but a nothing compared to its potential or Wreck-It Ralph. Unfortunately, this seems to be typical for science fiction-based humor.
So why can’t I tell you how to fix this film? Usually, I can come up with a couple changes that would have helped. This time I can’t. To explain this, a quote from The Matrix comes to mind. Neo asks if they made a mistake because something they expected to happen didn’t happen. Morpheus says, “No. What happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.” The same thing is true here. The moment this thing started as an Adam Sandler film, it could follow no other path... it couldn’t have happened any other way. Indeed, by choosing this mix of characters and requiring that Sandler go through the process of being the lovable-loser-turned-winner, it became impossible to have this film to do anything other than what it did. In other words, the structure is so restricting that it cannot be fixed.



AndrewPrice said...

Sorry for the delay. I had to replace my computer. :(

tryanmax said...

RE: Adam Sandler, agreed, once he is tied to a project, it almost automatically becomes another installment of Happy Gilmore. The only exceptions are when he does serious films. As an actor, he's got inherent appeal and charm, but as a comedian, he's one note.

On space/alien comedies, they are ripe for poking fun at the absurdities of our own culture and norms through an unvarnished lens. Galaxy Quest did this by having the naive aliens mistake our popular fantasies for historical documents. The MIB movies constantly had aliens teasing and criticizing human idiosyncrasies. The kids' movie Home took the approach of aliens doing human-like things without understanding why humans do them, and thus doing them strangely and wrong.

Aliens offer the chance at an ultimate fish-out-of-water scenario, which is a bottomless trove for comedy. So it's a shame when sci-fi comedy gets squandered for low-hanging body humor and shameless stereotyping.

PikeBishop said...

When I saw the big Super Bowl ad for it, I thought it had a great and pretty original premise, (based on an old theme of course), but then the reviews made me think twice.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Me too. Because of that, I waited for HBO. It's not horrid, but it's totally forgettable and I'm glad I never paid for it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree completely. Aliens offer a tremendous amount of potential. They let you do virtually any kind of social commentary -- you could remake Blazing Saddles (for example) using blue and orange people easily. You can do science jokes (see Futurama). You can attack all the cliches of sci-fi, as well. You can attack sci-fi culture (see Galaxy Quest). With videogames, you also have nostalgia working for you. You also have all the old cliches of playing the games at the time. You have gamer culture jokes. You have game play jokes. You have developer jokes. There is SO much you can use to form a great plot and fill it with humor.

Yet, far too often, you end up with exactly what you say: body humor and stereotyping. And that's really all you got in this film. This is Happy Gilmore with aliens in the site gags.

soonertroll said...

When I saw the first minute of the trailer I thought this movie had potential to be really good. Then I saw Adam Sandler was the star. His Happy Madison act was already wearing thin by the late 90's, yet he still keeps cranking them out.

I can understand why Sandler gets all the hate from people who write movie reviews. They have to watch his worn out shtick. Little Nicky was the last Sandler comedy I watched. What a humourless soul sucker that movie was.

Anthony said...

I'm an avid longtime gamer but I have zero use for Sandler nowadays so I've avoided Pixels. Sounds like it was a smart move.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, As a gamer, you didn't miss anything. This is about as shallow as you can get when it comes to making a film about gaming. There are a handful of things that will remind you of old games and that's about it. There's no depth, no cleverness.

AndrewPrice said...

soonertroll, I've come to feel the same way about Sandler. He was funny once, until he told the same joke over and over and over. His movies have been a slog to get through at this point.

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