Saturday, 15 August 2015

Pixels (4½ Stars)


1982. It was a far distant time in the past. Nobody had a computer at home. The Internet hadn't been invented. But a new technology was emerging. Arcade games, also known as video games. They were standalone game consoles that either stood individually in shopping malls, or they were gathered together in shops called video arcades where they shared floor space with pinball machines. They were pay-to-play, usually not very expensive, but due to their addictive nature kids spent all their pocket money playing them again and again and again.

This is where the film starts. In 1982 three 13-year-old boys, Sam, Bill and Ludlow, are united by their love of video games. The real star in the group is Sam, who seems unbeatable, scoring top score after top score while all the other kids stare in amazement. Sam expects to become the American video game champion, but he's defeated by an arrogant boy called Eddie.

30 years later the boys have moved on. People get older, as we all know. Sam and Bill are still friends. Sam installs home entertainment systems. Bill has become President of the United States. Ludlow is a recluse, living in his grandmother's basement afraid that the government will kill him because he's found out the truth behind. Kennedy's assassination. "Kennedy shot first". Eddie is in prison for fraud. Now their past catches up with them. A rocket was sent into space containing videotapes of Earth's culture, in the hope that it would be found by an alien race. Included were samples of video games filmed at the 1982 video game competition. The rocket was found, and an alien race responds. They interpreted the video games as a demonstration of the the Earth's weapons arsenal, so they send video games to attack the Earth.

Galaga attacks a US army base in Guam, Centipede attacks the Taj Mahal and Pac-Man attacks New York City. Conventional weapons are useless against the attack. The only defence is to follow the rules of the computer games. President Bill Cooper calls Sam, Ludlow and Eddie together to save the world. They look like the Ghostbusters, but if they need a name it's better to call them the Gamebusters.


Bill, Violet, Sam, Ludlow and Eddie, with Q*Bert at the front. Violet is one of Sam's customers who is also a senior army adviser to the White House. I don't need to introduce Q*Bert, do I? He was the character in my favourite video game of the 1980's. There was a version of the game available for the Intel PC XT which I played for hours on end in the late 1980's. I was never very good at other video games, but I was the Q*Bert champion. In 2004 Yahoo created a Flash game which closely mimics the original, but I don't play it as often because it's too easy. Sony released a new version for Playstation in February 2015.


The critics have already slammed the film, but the public loves it. It's a big box office success. A film like this is a perfect example of the gulf between the critics and the viewing public. The critics probably decided they didn't like it as soon as they saw the trailer. I can imagine what they said. "The film is silly". I agree. It's a very silly film. But it's a funny film that entertains people. It will probably earn more money at the box office than most of the Academy Award winners next year. The viewers want to be entertained, they want to laugh, and in that respect "Pixels" is a success.


It's been said that everyone remembers where they were when they first played Pacman. That's certainly the case for me. It was invented in 1980, and I discovered it a year later in 1981. I was on a company outing with Informatik-Systemtechnik GmbH, where I worked as an an analyst and programmer. We went for lunch at a beautiful little restaurant in the countryside. I don't remember the name of the restaurant or where it was situated. What I do remember is that a single game console was standing outside, next to the tables. My friend Mac (Malcolm McGibbon) drew my attention to it. It was my first encounter with Pacman, which I had previously never heard of. The two of us stood for hours playing alternately. As I remember, Mac played better than me. We must have spent a lot of money. Each game cost one Mark (approximately 50 US cents at the time), and we couldn't stop playing. It was too addictive. We kept running into the restaurant to change our notes into coins.

Amusingly, my daughter Fiona spoke to me very excitedly a few years ago, about 2010. She told me she'd discovered an amazing game online, I really needed to see it. I sat next to her, and what was she playing? Pacman. Pacman will never die. With its simple graphics and hectic animation it will continue to fascinate people as long as computers exist.


The way Pacman is shown in the film illustrates the way in which the rules of video games have to be followed to battle the alien invaders. Pacman's four enemies in the video game are the ghosts Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. To battle Pacman Sam and his friends use four ghost cars, specially adapted Mini Coopers, identified by their colours and their license plates. Left to right we have Inky, Blinky, Clyde and Pinky.


In the film Ludlow is hopelessly in love with Lady Lisa, a video game character featured in the game Dojo Quest. It must be tragic to be in love with someone who doesn't exist. Supposedly it's not uncommon. I've heard of young computer nerds falling in love with Lara Croft. I was slightly confused while I watched the film, because I had never heard of Dojo Quest. I ran home to check and found the answer. It's a fictional game that never existed in the 1980's. However, Sony has developed a new game called Dojo Quest in the style of 1980's video games. It's already available for free download for smartphones and other platforms.


The game looks beautiful, a perfect throwback to the 1980's. I can hardly wait to play it. It looks like a Super Mario type of jump and climb game. The game's hero is a powerful sexy woman who slices up men with her twin swords, so even Anita Sarkeesian might approve.


I couldn't imagine myself falling in love with a pixellated 1980's computer game character, but if Lady Lisa looked like Ashley Benson, who plays her in the film, I might think differently. Maybe love is the wrong word. In my case it would be pure lust. When Ludlow meets his dream woman he doesn't get what he hoped for. He wants to kiss her, but all she wants is to cut him to pieces. Poor Ludlow.


But I have to admit, if the Earth were ever invaded by someone who looked like this it would be much too hard for me to run away. Very few men would be able to defend themselves. I hope no alien race is reading my blog. I might have just sold out the human race.


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