Most of the time, I’m an unashamed nerd. I’m an unironic, overenthusiastic, equal-opportunity lover of “the miracle of human consciousness.” I enjoy a lot of things with a lot of energy and I don’t easily calm down or back off from a cultural product I’m excited about.
I say all this so you can understand how serious this is: seeing Pixels has made me want to go into nerd hibernation until this horrible storm blows over.
The movie can stuff in as many beloved arcade game characters as it wants, but it will never compensate for its lazy storytelling, awful characters, blatant misogyny, and deeply unsettling moral code. It’s the worst kind of bad joke dressed up to look like a generationally inclusive nostalgia-fest. The most disappointing thing about it is in the hands of a different filmmaking team its concept maybe could have made an enjoyable movie.
The premise is that a recording of the 1982 World Gaming Championship tournament was sent into space on one of a probe seeking contact with extraterrestrial life. That probe was found by an alien race who interprets our predominately violence-based games as a declaration of war. Cut to the present day and the aliens have come to Earth to accept our challenge by raining pixelated fire down on a military base via life-size Galaga starships.
The—I can’t bring myself to use the word “heroes” —protagonists of the story are the group of middle schoolers who won that same tournament in 1982: Brenner (Adam Sandler), Ludlow (Josh Gad), and Eddie (Peter Dinklage, why did you ever think being in this movie was going to be good for you?). These three have grown up to be losers, but their buddy Cooper (Kevin James) somehow grew up to be President, and when the attackers are identified as old school arcade games, he brings in the experts, the nerds, to lead the war.
From there the rest of the movie is mostly colorful 8-bit combat, and as cool looking as some of those effects are, the only sequence that felt properly thought out was the battle with Pac-man in the second act. The rest is just candy colored chaos. Its intentional cartoonishness makes it surprisingly non-violent, and despite the PG-13 rating, its language use is sparse. It is, on the surface, family friendly.
But if you take your family to see it, though you may not have to explain why grown-ups curse sometimes, you will have to explain why it’s OK for a man to call a woman he doesn’t know snobby, crazy, riff-raff, and psycho, and then lean in for a kiss. You’ll have to walk through how being bullied when you’re a kid means that you’ve got a free pass to be a bully when you’re an adult. You’d have to point out how it’s justified that a character’s sexual fantasies about a female video game character are fulfilled when she’s left on Earth as a literal trophy because hey, he saved the world! He deserves true love.
All sarcasm aside, Pixels is an insidious version of “family friendly” that cleans up the package without giving any thought to what’s inside. It operates on a morality based on a kind of vengeance mentality: these characters are nerds, they’ve been bullied, they’re unloved, their lives of unfettered access to a massive number of cultural products are the absolute worst. And so the cruelty with which they treat the people around them is just them giving back what they’ve been dealt.
But even that doesn’t stand up within the film’s storyline—what we see of their videogame-soaked childhood looks awesome. The film just assumes that loving these games was such a unusual thing that these characters had to be abused for it. The games on whose massive popularity the entire premise and success of this movie is built. Yup. Those games were for weirdos.
What Pixels wants to show is that nerds have skills and can be heroes too. The only thing it actually proves is that nerds really are all the horrible names we were called in middle school: gross, weird, mean, and above all, lame.
I’m angry that I felt genuine shame calling myself a nerd after seeing how this movie portrays nerds and nerd culture. I don’t blame people for disliking us when we’re presented as emotionally stunted brats who expect to get everything we want in life despite being just as unkind to the world as it was to us. The worst part is there are nerds like that who will walk out of this movie thinking, “That is so me.” Fortunately Pixels is also so bad that it likely won’t do too much box-office business, no matter how many fragile egos it appeals to.
If you want to see a movie in which the unjustly abused nerd triumphs over evil, don’t watch this one. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of movies below that give you the same story. They’re certified Real Nerd™ approved, actually family friendly, and impossibly better than Pixels.
Sky High—The film watches like reading a comic book, has tons of imagination, is genuinely funny, presents a heartwarming message about building strong relationships with friends and family, and who doesn’t want to see a floating high school for superheroes in action?
Big Hero 6—Everyone in this movie is a nerd, even the giant marshmallow robot. They all use their nerdy-ness to advance the great causes of justice, friendship, and awesome supersuits. It’s another superhero-centric movie but this time, the superpower is science.
Lemonade Mouth—This one’s all about nerds for the arts, specifically music. It’s got a number of great subplots that engage with lots of different family relationships in honest but manageable ways. Combine that with a varied, well-written cast, a story about standing up for what’s right, and some seriously fun music, and you’ve got a film that deserved better than 15 minutes of fame on Disney Channel.
The Amazing Spiderman—The classic superpowered nerd story. I prefer this adaptation to the 2002 version; it’s funnier, better written, and a bit more family friendly than the previous franchise. We reviewed it when it premiered, so check here for more analysis.
Thunderbirds—I might have a lot of people disagree with me on this, but if you’re looking for a nostalgic nerdy throwback with a fun story, cool effects, and solid morals, this is a good candidate. It’s a live-action update of the 60s superhero family that retains just the right amount of its classic kitsch.
Like I said, the language is remarkably scattered and tame, and the violence consists of 8-bit stylized explosions. Some humans get transported to the alien mothership by being broken apart into pixels and the process is made to look scary and painful though no real harm is done to the people. A videogame character pees out of fear. There is too much indirect sexual content to list: comments, name-calling, outfits, camera movements, it’s flat out disgusting. The best way to avoid it is just to not see it.
Jessica Gibson is a former intern with Christianity Today Movies and a student at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets only to fangirl and gripe @GibbyTOD.