READ MORE: ‘Pixels’ Reviews Give Adam Sandler No Quarter
“Pixels,” the new science fiction-action-comedy directed by Chris Columbus, opens with a jaunt back to 1982. A young man, chosen for the dubious honor of looking the most like leading man Adam Sandler, furiously pedals his bike past green lawns, beautiful girls and lemonade stands. His destination is the newly opened arcade, which holds within it treasures such as Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. He lives; he loves. He plays video games.
Then the movie jumps ahead 33 years, to 2015. There are flat-screen TVs, smartphones. Someone mentions Katy Perry. On first glance, it would appear we’re in the modern day, but in truth we have jumped into an alternate timeline, a dystopian future where video games achieved their one blinking moment of cultural relevance during the arcade heydays before being lost to time. “Nerd” is still thrown around like a dirty word. In the grim future painted by “Pixels,” people who wear glasses still get regularly shaken down for their lunch money by people named “Biff” and “Tad.”
Disdain for video games is so built into the very conceit of “Pixels,” it’s shocking that the film seems to be trying to inspire nostalgia. Everyone, himself included, believes Sam Brenner (Sandler) has wasted his life playing games. “It’s a useless skill now,” says Kevin James’ Cooper early on. “Like blacksmithing.” In this universe, professional gaming apparently lost momentum pretty early, rather than generating almost 200 million dollars last year alone.
The naysayers are proven wrong when aliens invade, in the form of retro video game characters, and conventional military weapons and tactics prove useless. The good news is, in the real world, we don’t actually need an alien invasion for video games to become relevant. They just are.
As a bad movie, “Pixels” is extremely dismissible. The ways in which it is bad are hardly fun to pick apart, a la “The Room;” instead, they’re just banal — the deeply predictable plot, the unfunny jokes, the constant low-level sexism and occasional spikes of racism that permeate the story. Believe me, I would love to never think about this movie again. But “Pixels” is not a stand-alone mistake. It’s the latest entry in a long line of awful films about video games.
While “Pixels” wants to shout its nihilistic commentaries on the state of modern games from the roof, most video game movies operate on a quieter, more calculated sort of cynicism. The most common sort by far is the adaptation.
From the perspective of a studio executive, adaptations makes sense. Making a movie out of a popular video game means gaining access to an existing fanbase, people who will buy tickets based on franchise alone. It’s less risky than investing in a whole new intellectual property, and unfortunately, this calculation often pays off. The latest “Resident Evil” movie, the fifth in the franchise, made over $200 million in 2012. “Need for Speed,” which was released last year, made a disgusting amount of money as well, despite being adapted from a racing video game that had no recognizable story, setting or characters (though in that way, the adaption was faithful).
But making money is all video game movies do. Critics universally pan them. They don’t even please the fans they’re supposed to inherit. When “Doom” came out in 2005, carrying with it the legacy of one of the most influential video games in the medium’s short history, it was an enormous disappointment.
Now, it’s hardly a minority opinion to state that “Doom,” and almost every other video game adaptation, suffers from a dearth of creativity. But “Doom” could have actually been good if its writers had only abandoned the idea that they were making a “video game movie.”
Hollywood doesn’t understand video games. That’s the only way to explain the infamous “first person shooter” sequence in “Doom,” when the camera nestles behind Karl Urban’s gun for a deeply disorienting five minutes. The game “Doom” is fun, and there’s an intrinsic appeal to navigating a three-dimensional space, at high speeds, while being attacked by cyborg demons from Mars. It isn’t fun just because you’re behind the gun.
The same problem arises in the “Prince of Persia” movie. Watching a suspiciously “Persian” Jake Gyllenhaal swap spots with a stunt double as he jumps between rooftops is no replacement for the kinetic exploration or acrobatic miracles that the game allows players to conduct. A movie trying to be a video game will never be as good as the video game.
The same sort of identity crisis is sweeping through the world of AAA games right now. “The Order: 1886,” released this last February, was widely criticized as being more cinematic than playable. While the visuals were amazing, the player rarely had any agency. The experience unfolded as one long cutscene, occasionally interspersed with interactive sections. It was a video game trying to be a movie, and it was no fun.
The most creative games coming out now are often the ones from small teams with little funding. Without huge teams or money to burn on impressive graphics, indie games like this year’s “Titan Souls” have increasingly relied on innovative mechanics and novel premises to stand out. Of course, we’ll never see a “Titan Souls” game. But we are getting a “Minecraft” movie some time in the misty future.
I don’t know how that film will attempt to pay homage to its source material or salute its many fans, but I hope it isn’t through apologetic fan service, like Doom, or the nostalgic nods and winks that “Pixels” tries and fails to pass off. If “Minecraft” should inspire anything in a filmmaker, it should be be creativity, and maybe by punching trees into wooden blocks and stacking them atop one another, someone can build us a solution to this serial problem.
But based on recent examples, expect that block construction to become an actual scene, and not much else.