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"But, seriously, could Pixels really mean “game over” for his career?"— The Atlantic
Pixels is a 2015 fantasy film directed by Chris Columbus, who also produced with Allen Covert, Mark Radcliffe and Adam Sandler, who starred in the lead role as well as serving as co-producer and conceived its production. The film is based on the 2010 short film of the same name by Patrick Jean. The screenplay was written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling from a screen story by Herlihy. The film co-stars Kevin James, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Sean Bean, and Jane Krakowski. Combining computer-animated video game characters and visual effects, the film follows an alien race misinterpreting video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, resulting in them invading Earth using technology inspired by the 1980s and 90s games such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Arkanoid, Galaga, Centipede, Donkey Kong and Mega Man. To counter the invasion, the United States hires former arcade champions to lead the planet's defense. Principal photography on the film began on May 28, 2014, in Toronto; filming was completed in three months.
Produced by Columbus's 1492 Pictures and Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, Pixels was released theatrically by Columbia Pictures (via Sony Pictures Releasing) in the United States on July 24, 2015, in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D formats. Pixels received generally negative reviews from critics but grossed over $244 million worldwide against a production budget of between $88 million and $129 million becoming a box office bomb. It is often considered to be the one of the worst films ever made.
When aliens intercept video feeds of classic arcade games and misinterpret them as a declaration of war, they attack Earth, using the games as models of Galaga, Space Invaders, Centipede, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Knowing that he must employ a similar strategy, President Will Cooper (Kevin James) recruits his childhood pal, former video-game champ and home-theater installer Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), to lead a team of old-school arcade players and a military specialist (Michelle Monaghan) in an all-out battle to save the planet.
The film is based on Patrick Jean's video-game-themed short film, Pixels. Adam Sandler hired Tim Herlihy to write the film, a draft that Herlihy had said that everybody at the studio "hated". Eventually, he and Sandler came up with the concept of having Kevin James be the President of the United States and rewrote the film incorporating this element. In July 2012, Tim Dowling was hired to rewrite the film. Seth Gordon was attached as executive producer and possibly direct the film. Chris Columbus became involved in the project in May 2013. Columbus said he first met Sandler to discuss a possible remake of Hello Ghost, and as he left the meeting, the director was handed a script for Pixels. The script affected Columbus, who considered it "one of the most original ideas I had seen since the Amblin days" and a good opportunity to harken back to the 1980s comedies he worked on. Characters from classic arcade games such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Frogger, Galaga and Donkey Kong, among several others, were licensed for use in the film.
There were originally plans to include a scene where the Great Wall of China is damaged, but the concept was removed from the script in hopes to improve the film's chances in the Chinese market.
On February 26, 2014, it was announced that Sandler would play the lead role in the film, while James and Josh Gad were in early talks to join the cast. On March 28, Peter Dinklage was also in final talks to join the film, playing the fourth and final male lead. Jennifer Aniston was originally considered for the female lead but declined due to scheduling conflicts. On April 4, Michelle Monaghan joined the film to star as the female lead. On June 11, Brian Cox joined the cast, and plays military heavyweight Admiral Porter. The part of "Lady Lisa", a beautiful warrior from the fictional 1980s video game Dojo Quest, was offered to Elisha Cuthbert, but she turned down the role, which went to Ashley Benson. On July 9, Jane Krakowski joined the cast as the First Lady.
In a May 2015 interview, competitive gamer Billy Mitchell, after whom Dinklage's character is modeled, acknowledged that the character was based on him and expressed approval of the casting, calling Dinklage "a good actor" and "a good guy".
The film was greenlit on a production budget of $135 million, but according to documents from the Sony Pictures hack, Doug Belgrad was able to negotiate it down to $110 million. On March 25, 2014, the Ontario Media Development Corporation confirmed that the film would be shot in Toronto from May 28 to September 9 at Pinewood Toronto Studios.
Principal photography on the film commenced in Toronto on June 2, 2014, using downtown streets decorated to resemble New York City. Given sequences such as the Pac-Man chase happened at night, often the filmmakers would close the streets off from traffic at 7 PM, and redecorate to resemble New York until it was dark enough, filming from 9:30 PM up to 5:30 AM. On July 29, filming was taking place outside of Markham, Ontario. Filming was also done in the Rouge Park area, and extras were dressing in costume at Markham's Rouge Valley Mennonite Church. On August 4, actors Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage and Ashley Benson were spotted in Toronto filming scenes for the film on Bay Street, which was transformed into a city block in Washington, D.C., and littered with wrecked vehicles and giant holes in the pavement. The Ontario Government Buildings were doubled to transform into a federal office building in Washington. Actors were aiming at aliens, which could not be seen, but were added later with computer-generated imagery. On August 26, 2014, filming took place in Cobourg. Filming was completed in three months, with 12 hours of shooting a day.
Most of the visual effects for Pixels were handled by Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks, with nine other VFX companies playing supporting roles, all under the leadership of supervisor Matthew Butler and producer Denise Davis. Early tests began in October 2013, with the majority of the effects work starting after principal photography wrapped in September 2014, and finishing by June 2015. The video game characters would be built out of boxy voxels to resemble the low-resolution pixel-based arcades, while also emitting light and having raster scan defects in its animation to appear more as if they came from a CRT monitor. Along with the actual sprite sheets, a major inspiration to build the 3D versions was the cabinet art, where Imageworks visual effects supervisor Daniel Kramer considered that "was the intention the game creators wanted their technology to be, but the technology couldn't live up to creating that." The most complex characters to the model were Q*Bert, which interacted the most with humans and had the problem of looking round despite being built out of cubes, and Donkey Kong, who the animators wanted to make sure remained recognizable even in different angles.
- The film itself is very underwhelming in the first place, mainly because the idea of aliens attacking Earth with video games is such a good premise, but the execution was horrible, and its premise takes elements from the Futurama episode "Anthology of Interest II".
- Much like with the Fantastic Four reboot and Total Drama All-Stars, perhaps the worst aspect of this movie is the big potential it had to be awesome. It had Chris Columbus as the director, someone who made memorable family films like the first two Home Alone films and the first two Harry Potter films, the premise was quite original and creative and could well serve as a tribute to classic 80s video games, and had notable actors in the cast. However, all of that failed because, in the end, this is still yet another romantic comedy that happens to feature Adam Sandler. A trope that had already been used in The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Mr Deeds, Just Go With It and Blended. That's what essentially drags the film down: The fact that the majority of the movie is dedicated to the pointless romantic subplot between Adam Sandler and Michelle Monaghan.
- It's pretty much a generic game crossover movie with far too much fan service, especially when the movie has a lot of appearances from several video game characters. While fan service may be a good thing, it sometimes makes the movie feels a bit rushed.
- The film is rather overloaded with far too many ideas, especially for a game crossover movie.
- Poor attempts at humor, like Q*bert urinating after seeing Donkey Kong.
- Much like many other Happy Madison films, the film has overuse of blatant product placement, particularly YooHoo! drinks in the beginning, as well as UTZ Cheese Balls, the latter of which is fed to Q*bert by Sam.
- False advertising: On one of the posters, Pac-Man is seen devouring San Francisco. However, in the movie, he is seen in New York. Not only that, there are absolutely no scenes that take place in San Francisco at all. Also, the poster shows him as a gigantic creature capable of eating a city in just one bite when in the movie he's not that big.
- Several characters such as Eddie Plant, Ludlow Lamonsoff, and Sam Brenner are unlikable.
- In fact, teenager Sam is more likable than adult Sam, because he doesn't simply explain the patterns to the S.E.A.L. soldiers.
- Weak performances. Particularly, Adam Sandler and Kevin James show little to no expression.
- Laughable dialogue, particularly "You smell so nice like the book of Genesis."
- In the ending, Lady Lisa, whom Ludlow fell in love with, gets returned to the mothership, so Q*bert transforms into Lady Lisa, and they get married. This suggests that women are nothing more than prizes to be won, as Eddie Plant's prize for saving the world? Get his wish, a three-way between him, Martha Stewart, and Serena Williams, with Sam's prize being to make out with Violet (though this could be a reference to how "saving the princess" was a thing in the games back then).
- Q*bert's transformation into Lady Lisa made so little sense, that even Sam Brenner questions it.
- And to top it off, their children are a bunch of little Q*berts, implying that Lady Lisa is still Q*bert, which is nonsensical (as mentioned before) and straight-up disturbing.
- The film is just another generic story where aliens invade the Earth and our heroes have to stop them. You could take out Sam, his friends, and the video game elements and virtually nothing about the premise would be different.
- Not only is Admiral Porter a weak secondary villain, but he was also unnecessary, as the movie has already been two-thirds in by that point.
- There is virtually not a lot of chemistry between any of the main characters.
- The movie is riddled with plot holes. For instance:
- Classic arcade Donkey Kong and Pac-Man didn't have cheat codes, so Eddie logically couldn't have been able to cheat.
- It's shown that whatever the aliens touch, turns into pixels, but when a crane catches Frogger at one point, nothing happens.
- Why is it that Lady Lisa is the only video game character not pixellated?
- In the final Donkey Kong battle, they have to play by the game's rules, but instead, the heroes cheat and don't play by the rules, even after they make a big deal over how cheating is bad.
- The revelation that Eddie used a cheat code to outrun the ghosts, even back in the video game competition, is the worst example of this. Not only since out of the thousands of people watching, not a single person saw Eddie input the cheat code, but how did he even input the code into the car?
- The film almost killed off Adam Sandler's career in theatrical films, and since then, all the major film studios snubbed him. Since Pixels, all of his films, minus the first two Hotel Transylvania sequels and Uncut Gems, have been solely released on Netflix.
- It brings up an interesting question; what if aliens misinterpreted a signal we sent them as a declaration of war? (Despite the answer being not that great).
- As pointed above: the idea of aliens sending retro video game characters to attack the Earth and the nerds being the ones to save it and be the heroes is quite interesting and compelling.
- The scene where Toru Iwatani tries to reunite with Pac-Man is a touching moment
- The soundtrack is good by Henry Jackman, with a nice rendition of We Will Rock You, and "Game On" by Waka Flocka ft. Good Charlotte is a banger of a theme song.
- The cinematography is pretty good.
- To add to that, the credits are decently animated in 8-bit.
- The battle scenes with the video-game characters are quite entertaining to watch.
- The visuals and CGI for the arcade characters are very neat and exceptional, even by 2015 standards, which makes for pretty good action.
- Besides Q*bert urinating, both the Donkey Kong and the Pac-Man scenes, in particular, are both amazing.
- Even if the movie completely wastes their talents, Peter Dinklage and Michelle Monaghan give good performances.
- The actual Toru Iwatani (the real creator of Pac-Man; this time not portrayed by Denis Akiyama) makes a cameo in the opening flashback as an arcade repairman.
- The movie can have its moments (eg. Ludlow yelling at US soldiers or Toru Iwatani getting his hand bitten off, and after the battle in London, there's a heartwarming moment when grandma met the Duck Hunt Dog.)
- Even as weak as he was, Admiral Porter's revelation was shocking.
- Unlike Wreck-It Ralph, an animated film with a similar premise about video games, it at least included a cameo of Super Mario, the most renowned video game character of all time.
- The Smurf, even though he's not a video game character and gets killed despite already being made by Sony Pictures, is so cool and cute to look at!
- The ending is kinda nice, despite being cliche.
Pixels received negative reviews from critics with the main criticism aimed at the script, performances, and plot, although some praised its visual effects, action scenes, and musical score. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 17% based on 204 reviews; the average rating is 3.9/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Much like the worst arcade games from the era that inspired it, Pixels has little replay value and is hardly worth a quarter.". It currently holds a 5.5 on IMDb. On Metacritic, the film holds a 27/100 indicating "generally unfavorable reviews" and holds a 1.9 on Letterboxd. Scores from audiences were more mixed, with a 5.1 Metacritic score and 46% Rotten Tomatoes score. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.
Chris Stuckmann gave the film an F. Stuckmann later ranked the film at #3 in his Top 10 Worst Movies of 2015 list.
The movie currently has a Google users rating of "78%".
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film one star out of four, calling it "a 3D metaphor for Hollywood's digital assault on our eyes and brains" and deeming it "relentless and exhausting". In Salon.com, Andrew O'Hehir called the film "another lazy Adam Sandler exercise in 80s Nostalgia", as well as "an overwhelmingly sad experience" characterized by "soul-sucking emptiness". The Guardian called it "casually sexist, awkwardly structured, bro-centric" and warned, "Pity the poor souls who go into the comedy blockbuster thinking they've signed up to watch The Lego Movie by way of Independence Day. They'll be disappointed". Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News gave the film no stars and wrote, "Someone please retire Adam Sandler. Pixels is the last straw for this has-been...Every joke is forced, every special effect is un-special...The dipstick Pixels is about as much fun as a joystick and not even half as smart". "It manages to achieve the weird effect of feeling overlong and choppy at the same time, like someone edited the film with a pair of garden shears," wrote Randy Cordova in The Arizona Republic. Kyle Smith wrote in the New York Post that Pixels is "as adolescent as a zit" with jokes "as fresh as the antique store".
"Everything is wrong here," wrote Megan Garber in The Atlantic Monthly, "cinematically, creatively, maybe even morally. Because Pixels is one of those bad movies that isn't just casually bad, or shoot-the-moon bad, or too-close-to-the-sun bad, or actually kind of delightfully bad. It is tediously bad. It is bafflingly bad. It is, in its $90 million budget and 104-minute run time, wastefully bad. Its badness seems to come not from failure in the classic sense—a goal set, and unachieved—but from something much worse: laziness. Ambivalence. A certain strain of cinematic nihilism". Peter Sobczynski, writing for RogerEbert.com, called the premise promising but the execution "abysmal."
Conversely, Katie Walsh, reviewing for the Chicago Tribune, was more positive, saying "despite [its] unfortunate shortcomings, Pixels has its funny and fresh moments, thanks in large part to the supporting comic actors and inventive special effects".
Pixels grossed $78.7 million in North America and $164.9 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $244.9 million. Reports of the production budget of the film range from $88 million to $129 million, with Sony Pictures officially stating the cost as $110 million. The film received tax rebates of $19 million for filming in Canada.
In the United States and Canada, Pixels opened alongside Paper Towns, Southpaw and The Vatican Tapes, in 3,723 theaters. Box office pundits noted that the film's release date caused it to face competition with the first former film and along with the holdovers Ant-Man and Minions, all of which were projected to earn around $20 million. However, some analysts suggested the film could open to as high as $30 million and if it failed to hit $30 million, it could have difficulty being profitable unless it earned a significant audience abroad. It made $1.5 million from its Thursday night showings at 2,776 theaters, and topped the box office on its opening day, earning $9.2 million. Through its opening weekend it grossed $24 million from 3,723 theaters, debuting at second place at the box office, behind Ant-Man.
Reviews and the Top 10s
- Columbia Pictures hired Entura International to send Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices to websites hosting user-uploaded videos of the film. The company proceeded to file DMCA takedown notices indiscriminately against several Vimeo videos containing the word "Pixels" in the title, including the 2010 award-winning short film the film is based on, the official film trailer, a 2006 independently produced Cypriot film uploaded by the Independent Museum of Contemporary Art, a 2010 university work by a student of the Bucharest National University of Arts, a royalty-free stock footage clip and an independently produced project. The takedown notice sent by Entura stated that the works infringe copyright they had the right to enforce, and once the notice was made public, it was withdrawn.