One Reason 'Pixels' is Better Than the Big Movies of 2015

The night before last, my parents and sisters decided to make a pilgrimage to the Red Box machine to do a Family Movie Night, because one of my siblings is leaving town again. The three films up for consideration were Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, and Pixels -- a comedy film that I had never before heard about. When asked for my vote, I said that I didn't have any particular desire to see either the new Terminator or the new Jurassic Park. When Pixels was described to me as a simple B-list comedy film about the 1980s and videogames and aliens -- starring Adam Sandler -- I admitted that it sounded entertaining.

Discovering that I would rather watch a deliberately cheesy, explicitly nostalgia-driven comedy flick than a thoroughly realized blockbuster speculative-genre film surprised me, somewhat defying my history of being a stone-faced prick. Even as one who has long been onboard with the concept of both storytelling and playing being redemptive methods of participating in the ongoing transmission of human mythologies, I've always greatly preferred the serious thing to the silly thing.

Besides my knee-jerk tendency to dismiss silliness, I'm inclined to be critical to something that openly and directly trades on the nostalgic past. I've learned from the best about the grip of nostalgia, how the appeal of reliving past experiences is so powerful that the entertainment industry exploits it. This commercial model destroys the meaning that the original experiences held for the audiences members, as the old experiences themselves -- or even the pop culture artefacts and products that remind us of those experiences -- become the deeper meanings of the new media artefacts, in a hell of never-satisfied desire and self-consuming emptiness. Pixels stands on this nostalgia trip, throwing both nostalgic content and our desire to relive the glorious past back at us as the whole point of the movie.

Still, out of the other night's three possibilities, Pixels clearly is the most originally creative work of art. I think of the other two films as "the new Terminator" and "the new Jurassic Park," and while my personal thought process may not hold any weight for classifying or evaluating something, it seems inevitable that we would mentally lump those two movies with the previous franchise instalments. That's the way these two movies are sold, what we've been told subliminally to expect of them. They represent what we already know. For all I know, both may be excellent, but they are both pieces of nostalgia, first and foremost both by design and by most audience members' probable approach to them. Pixels sells the nostalgia and stands on the premise of nostalgia far more directly, but in doing so it manages to be something concrete and specific. While it largely fails to transcend the impulse to worship our past experiences, it at least makes some meaningful connections people's real social and societal experiences. While I haven't seen the Terminator Genisys or Jurassic World and I hope their writers might have pulled off something deep, I feel that big-budget pieces of regurgitated nostalgia will always either cater to the safest, blandest, generically "family friendly" themes or else attack with blunt liberal progressivist critiques that steamroll over the nuances of our real social or existential problems with heavy agendas. Pixels does not go beyond simple affirmation of its audience members' nostalgia and subcultural identities. A straightforward revenge-of-the-nerds piece, it depicts the fantasies of stereotypical nerd-men gamers without seriously critiquing those fantasies.

Gender is massively relevant here, exemplifying both the movie's greatest social and moral blindness and its clearest social critique. A moment of dialog early in the film unities the conventional, successful-but-restricted woman and the weird loser nerd-man as common sufferers beneath the oppression of successful bureaucratic men who ride the System and control it. The film glories in the misunderstood uniqueness of the nerd-men, and the role of the female lead makes it easy to view the woman as honorary nerd-man. Perhaps it's equally easy to see nerd-man as honorary woman. The film mocks the Patriarchy wildly, most directly with one stereotypical throwaway cardboard-cutout grumpy old general. Hilariously, the President of the United States (played by Kevin James) is depicted as one of the guys, too incompetent to be a thorough-going nerd-man, but impossible to fit in with the serious Suits because he's a lovable, stupid oaf whom nobody takes seriously.

Yet the nerd-heroes' fantasies are indulged and positively celebrated. Small, forsaken, and suppressed, the nerd-men seize the opportunities to actualize their fantasies and validate their selfish behavior. Different kinds of people who share the experience of being suppressed don't automatically empathize with each other. The film probably fails the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

While Adam Sandler's protagonist Brenner, a strong and upstanding ordinary guy archetype as well as the most typical nerd-man, is level-headed and not exceptionally selfish, his character arc is solely based on rewarding him for being a long-suffering good guy. He gets the girl without complication. It is significant that Brenner's love interest ends up fighting by his side rather than taking the place of the damsel in distress from the classic arcade game Donkey Kong (referenced throughout the movie and used directly in one scene). However, she is characterized mainly for her desirable qualities, all of which are nondescript and serve to grant her the ability to validate Brenner. She's successful, a single mother, stereotypically uptight and clean-cut, and conventionally attractive. But the movie also explicitly features the subplot of the nerd-man winning the girl and realizing all his bizarre fantasies. At one point, the female lead even says, "You get to keep the trophies." The context of this dialog makes it clear that one character's long sexual obsession for a videogame heroine is the implicit subject. I'm sure this could be taken as irony, something that men's rights activists are supposed to take straight-up, while feminists are supposed to see the self-aware reference to the sexist tropes and laugh it off as a good joke.

It would be easier to validate Pixels as social irony if the film made any significant attempt to show the male leads struggling against their own banal impulses and their objectification of women as they selfishly try to seize the validation that the System has denied them. Social commentary is ultimately not the movie's strong point. Instead, Pixels shines brightest when it hits its themes regarding the overlooked and outdated thing that you love being important in its own unique way. There may be only one thing that you can do better than anyone else, one thing you believe to be special that nobody else appreciates. And when the needs of others' can be served by the lonely outsiders' abilities or insights (and there is probably always a way, because all people and all ideas are interconnected), the socially unacceptable outcasts have both the right and the duty to stand up and be who they truly are, in order to do the unique good that only they can do. Rejected nerd-man, socially suppressed woman, deadbeat President, and dreary old Suit---when there's a real problem that needs to be addressed, all are validated if they choose to deny their pride and selfishness in order to follow the dictates of their own uniqueness in order to strive for the real and universal Good.

In its portrayal of uniqueness, Pixels itself is refreshingly unique. Even though there may be other movies explicitly about nostalgia, Pixels manages to be about something real in a sufficiently non-coercive way, which is more than I expect of uncritical and over-hyped remakes and sequels. (I would be lying if I were to imply that I don't want to see the new Star Wars, because I totally do. But the point remains that it is by necessity "the new Star Wars" -- and not one unique thing that can stand alone as something meaningful.)


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