Film / Reviews

'Pixels' is more of an insult than ode to Pac-Man

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

When you’re a film critic, you are occasionally assailed by one of two overwhelming urges: first, to quit, and second, to punch Adam Sandler in the face.

“Pixels” is that rare movie in which both come at once, followed closely by a third urge: to immediately check yourself into a sanatorium and refrain from watching movies for the rest of your life.

This film is that bad, not least because Sandler is the hero — but no, it gets worse: Sandler plays an idiotic man-child named Sam, whose biggest personal achievement was that he was considered a “genius” 8th grader in 1982 for his video game skills. And then some 30 years later, at the age of 45, Sam gets the chance to save the world because of said genius skill.

But wait — it gets worse still: Sam’s best buddy, Cooper — the president of the United States, the commander in chief of the world’s biggest and strongest military — is played by Kevin James, who is relatively well known for playing the mall cop in the abysmal comedy “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Yes, that’s right, mall cop and president. Cooper and Sam successfully fight off a bunch of aliens bent on destroying Earth, and Earth is therefore obligated to thank a pair of clueless, dateless geeks forever and ever.

Equally terrible and insulting is the reason why aliens came over in the first place: NASA sent a time capsule into space that carried footage of a video game championship — a prime sampling of life and culture on our planet. The aliens find the footage, guess that humans are invading species, and decide to strike first using the game characters in said footage, recreated in humongous sizes and hell-bent on destruction.

Excuse me while I add a fourth urge to the list: the desire to slit open my wrists in front of the headquarters of Sony Pictures, the company responsible for this megaton pile of post-disaster debris and contaminated dust. Surely someone should have been checking the pollution levels from this thing?

Perhaps “Pixels” director Chris Columbus felt a similar urge, because he tries to lure our attention away from Sam and Cooper being their unforgivably obnoxious selves with something far more engaging: 1980s video games, the type you might have played if you were around back in the pre-Game Boy days, when kids actually had to take themselves out of the house to get to the arcade if they wanted to play.

In Japan, game centers, known as “gei-sen,” are still operating and full of adult salarymen reliving their childhood and relieving their workday stress. In the Kansai area, game centers have a reputation for even being frequented by families. Parents teach their small kids the ropes of playing retro arcade games like UFO Catcher and Mogura Tataki (Whack-a-mole), as well as Donkey Kong and Centipede — two games featured heavily in “Pixels.”

For the Japanese audience, though, the biggest draw will likely be the inclusion of Pac-Man, a character created by professor Toru Iwatani (currently teaching in the arts department at Tokyo Polytechnic University), who appeared in a press conference in late May to promote “Pixels.”

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Pac-Man and Iwatani was brought on stage for a number of press events but the pre-“Pixels” conference was the splashiest.

The professor makes a cameo appearance as an arcade repairman in the movie, and his own character is played by Japanese American actor Denis Akiyama. Unfortunately, Akiyama portrays Iwatani with a heavy Japanese accent and has little in common with the suave real-life professor, who stressed in the conference that Pac-Man is a peaceful game character who doesn’t kill or maim other characters.

“He was originally created to appeal to women and couples,” said Iwatani at the press conference. “I had wanted to change the image of the game center as it was in those days: dark, dingy, smelly and full of single men. Pac-Man was cute, and his energy source was cookies which made him fun and accessible. I had hoped the movie would keep that trait.”

Iwatani added that he made only one request to Columbus: “Don’t let Pac-Man turn into something cruel. It would totally go against the Pac-Man concept.”

The director honored Iwatani’s request. Pac Man eats up buildings and tears up streets in the film, but lays off harming any humans. (Though he does bite the hand of his maker, turning the fingers into pixels.)

Sam and his friends all seem to have a soft spot for Pac-Man.

“When I was on the set of the movie, Sandler-san told me he loved Pac-Man and had a Pac-Man cabinet in his home,” Iwatani said. “Naturally, I was flattered.”

Iwatani’s other highlight of appearing in “Pixels” was meeting Michelle Monaghan, who plays a weapons expert. Monaghan speaks Japanese, as she modeled in Tokyo prior to beginning her acting career (a background she shares with Cameron Diaz).

Unlike in the U.S., Japanese critics and audiences are generally ready to love “Pixels” — mainly for the ’80s nostalgia. Reina Nozaki, a 19-year-old college student in Tokyo aspiring to work in movie production design said she was eager to see the movie, though she had never seen any of the game characters before.

“I heard my father talking about it, and he said that Pac-Man was a symbol of Japan’s golden years,” she says. “That made me curious.”

Ah, the innocence of the young.

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