The best joke in Pixels happens within the first ten minutes of the film. After a prologue set in the early ‘80s featuring the main characters as awkward teens at a videogame competition, we cut to the present and discover that the fat best friend of the film’s hotshot arcade game-playing protagonist - complaining about too much pressure at work to his buddy in some generic Kelseys-esque bar - is now the President of the United States, complete with Secret Service detail ringing them at adjacent tables.
This wholly improbable – at least by movie comedy logic – twist is never explained or commented upon, and the film proceeds with the assumption that a guy who looks like Kevin James could be the POTUS, in the right place at the right time when invading aliens attack the Earth using arcade games from the first Reagan administration as their template.
Never mind how the unseen extraterrestrials modeled their invasion on Galaga, Centipede, Asteroids, Pac Man and Donkey Kong. (Hint: It’s basically the premise of the first Star Trek movie, which gives you some idea of the deep geek culture from which this – and every other film in the theatres these days – springs.) Pixels is a Triumph of the Nerds fantasy, where society’s most marginal white males – a divorced home tech installer (Adam Sandler,) a basement-dwelling conspiracy nut (Josh Gad,) and a midget felon with a mullet (Peter Dinklage, utterly wasted) – save the world with their apparently useless skills.
Gavin McInnes recently posted a video to The Rebel praising the geeks and nerds who obsess over pop culture and so-called trivia: “We need your enthusiasm,” he said, “because when you’re really into something you make cool stuff...It’s beneficial for us and it’s beneficial for you.” His roll call of geek obsessives who made it is only cursory; the fact is that culture, technology, business and politics are stuffed with wonks and dweebs whose focus was the key to their success.
You can’t even tag videogames as a loser marker anymore: The industry was growing four times faster than the U.S. economy as of last year, and its market in that country is projected to be worth nearly $20 billion dollars there by the end of the decade. (That’s roughly twice U.S. movie ticket revenues.) Game consoles might be slowing in sales but gaming apps are booming. From this perspective, the persistence of the gamer nerd as a stock character in films like Pixels smacks of sour grapes.
When I was in high school, roughly around when the opening scene of Pixels is set, there was a tabletop Asteroids console in the coffee shop where I’d spend spare periods with my friends, and I used to drive my pal Petey nuts by putting a quarter in the game and steering straight ahead while I sipped my coffee. I wouldn’t shoot my cannon or swerve, and would inevitably explode three quick times in succession. Bugging Petey was more fun than actually playing the game, and well worth my quarter.
A few years later when my sister got an early computer running DOS, I spent an hour or two on it before pronouncing it a worthless waste of time. I might have been right that Asteroids was a primitive amusement and pre-internet computers just landfill waiting to happen, but I was wrong about the big picture that both Asteroids and Windows would have allowed me to glimpse, if I’d bothered to look. Which is why I’m a poor freelance writer and Bill Gates could buy a thousand square miles in any direction from where I’m sitting as I write this.
It’s also why the great wasted joke in Pixels is the one where Kevin James becomes President of the United States of America, and a much better – and funnier – one remains unmade where we get to see how the fatboy second banana to Adam Sandler-as-a-teen finds the money, networks, ambition and weapons grade sociopathy that lands him in the White House. It was a film I tried to imagine while many of the jokes in Pixels failed to land, especially when the film reminded us that James-as-POTUS succeeded Obama. Looking over the field of hopefuls arrayed as primary season begins, it seemed as plausible as anything in real life.
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