Feeling ‘Pixel’ated?, I have.
From the tweets and private messages that have been sent my way throughout the week, I’ve been wracked by 8-bit nostalgia and trying to make one of life’s important choices: Do I really want to purchase an Atari Flashback 5 or ColecoVision Flashback? Or, do I just try and find another power adapter for my old Atari 2600 and try to resurrect that portion of my 8-bit youth for a little bit of retro fun?
Of course, naturally, this is also the week that Pixels comes to theatres and I’ve been dazzled by constant reminders of my 8-bit childhood heroes. Based on a PIXELS: a short film by Patrick Jean, this is a film trying to capitalize on that same Gen-X feeling of nostalgia I remember when I escaped the watchful eye of my parents and snuck away to the arcade hiding in the back hallway at the mall we would buy groceries at.
That’s the power of using these iconic properties in such a visual experience. As a short trailer, it captivates you with the fun memories of your youth, selling that nostalgia to buy your tickets early and take your kids out for some retro feels.
Then the longer trailers hit the internet and you start to be overwhelmed by the posters and traditional media commercials and ads. You’re okay until Adam Sandler opens his mouth and his dialogue hits your ears. Suddenly you realize why Q*bert seems to constantly pee himself in fear during every single scene he appears in the film.
The critics had even harsher words.
But that does not mean the movie will go Kaboom! at the box office. There is enough of an audience out there that didn’t grow up with these characters to fill theatre seats. It will make around $28-million in its opening weekend and will probably cover its production costs when the foreign markets pick it up and the comedy gets lost in translation; leaving only the visuals behind.
So, as a nostalgic property, where does this movie go wrong?
The obvious answer is that they ignore and break what I see as one of the essential rules for using a nostalgic property:
You must have love and respect for the nostalgic source material you are using.
It is like writing for children – You have to have no malice in your heart when you do it because even the slightest traces of it will show through in the final product. By changing the nostalgic source material to become the butt end of an Adam Sandler joke, or so your movie can access the Chinese market, it takes away from the final product and subconsciously your inner nostalgic child knows something is horribly wrong.
Now, am I just being judgemental on this?
Well yes and no. While I’ll admit to having a slight bias against Adam Sandler, mostly for making nothing but terrible movies and calling in his schtick performances post-Punch-Drunk Love, I blame the studio and Chris Columbus for putting him in that position of power to impact the film to the degree that he does.
So let’s counter this with an example from the other side of the digital coin. Let’s look at a film that uses these same 8-bit nostalgic properties successfully: Walt Disney’s 2012 animated film Wreck-It Ralph.
They embraced the nature of Q*Bert, as a person (okay, 8-bit orange creature). It wasn’t just his character that shone through. This example of using the heart and soul of the nostalgic character shines through in that film in the Bad-Anon meeting scene where Ralph goes to talk about being a bad guy. Each character in that scene is a nostalgic reminder for the multi-generational audience watching the film, bringing them further into the film and seeing Ralph as part of that same nostalgic universe. Their personalities are used to create that atmosphere of belonging. And it’s funny, enjoyable and works.
In Pixels, they come off as constructs more than characters. While you will feel for Q*Bert and the dancing Smurf they seem to kill for no reason, you will quickly realize that he’s only there for comic relief, bowel releasing and to fix glaring plot holes in the script. So you end up feeling sorry that he’s a part of the film. Just like you do when you spot a favourite 80’s icon forced to do Viagra commercials, open a local electronics store or sell insurance.
That, in my opinion, is the largest flaw in this movie and why it doesn’t work as a good example of proper nostalgia marketing. While it looks good on ads, posters and merchandise. In the film they seem to want to focus more on Adam Sandler’s angry character, and ego, and not enough in humanizing the villainous 8-bit creations.
At the centre, there’s no heart, only broken pixels.
Instead, drag out your old Atari, blow the dust off that old cartridge and enjoy some classic 8-bit games with heart. Or, you can try out this flash-based Q*Bert game instead.
If you’ve seen the movie, chime in below and tell me how it made you feel; or what you would have changed to make it better. Or, give me your advice on whether I should get the Atari Flashback 5 or dredge out my old 2600?
Until next time, Stay Retro.