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"Pixels" is Nerdsploitation At Its Worst [Review]

I saw Pixels for the first time last night. Like most of the critics, I didn't like it. In fact, I hated it. It took me a while to figure out why, though. When I realized it, it hit me with a ton of bricks.

Pixels is nerdsploitation.

I don't know if I invented that term, because I'm too lazy to Google it, but I'm going to pretend I did. Nerdsploitation is my term for movies and TV shows that exploit nerds. Blaxploitation movies of the seventies pretended to be about showing love for black culture when they really just used the worst stereotypes in order to make money. Nerdsploitation pretends to be about showing love for nerd culture while using the worst stereotypes of nerds to exploit them.

In case you're not familiar with it, Pixels is a science fiction comedy about classic videogames. The idea is that aliens found a videotape of people playing videogames in the eighties, thought they were real, and sends living versions of classic games to destroy Earth. The only ones who can stop them are a group of classic videogame experts. Armed with exotic weapons, the gamers shoot giant centipedes, race cars against Pac-Man, and jump over barrels in a gigantic version of Donkey Kong. It's an Adam Sandler movie, which means it has a lot of crude humor, dumb jokes, sexism, and cameos of all Sandler's friends who can't get a job anywhere else. But I'll put all that aside.

What bothered me most about the movie is that it should have been a celebration of eighties nostalgia. Anyone who walked into an arcade and dropped a quarter into a slot would see the appeal of the concept, but it was wasted. Pixels could have been all about how gaming culture has changed. People who played games used to be made fun of, but now videogame culture is everywhere. But mainly, it should have been a classic underdog story. The ones who seemed to be wasting time then are here now to put those skills to good use and save the world.

But that's not what we got.

Sandler's character Sam Brenner is the hero, but he's portrayed as a pathetic moron whose life fell apart because he couldn't play videogames. He works for a company called Nerd Brigade, which I assumed was a riff on Geek Squad. And that makes sense. I mean, he's good at technology, right? Geek Squad does troubleshooting on computers and electronic equipment. It's a classic nerd job.

But no, Brenner just installs television sets, which doesn't take that much technical skills to do. Really, he has no real skills, and no ambition. He's what someone in the eighties who looked down on videogames would imagine the players growing up to be. And while people talked about how Brenner has ideas and inventions, we don't see any evidence of that. It would have been good to have Sandler's character open up, maybe even invent some weapons to fight the aliens. But no, someone else creates all the weapons. Brenner just grabs and uses them.

By the end of the movie, Brenner and his team defeats the aliens and saves the day, but he still seems like a loser. Just a loser who can handle a light cannon. And the only reason he gets the job is his best friend happens to be the president of the United States (seriously).

The other gamer characters were even worse, One (Josh Gad) was a glasses-wearing conspiracy nut who literally lived in his mother's basement, and treated videogames like his friends. The other (Peter Dinklage) was a sleazeball ex-convict who thought he was loved while he was really hated. All the gamer characters were portrayed as losers then and losers now. There was no love for them. Just contempt.

Even worse, the movie misrepresented videogame skills. All the gamers kept talking about patterns as if being good at videogames is just about memorizing patterns. It's not. There's also eye-hand coordination and multitasking. But that didn't happen. At one point, Brenner complains that he can't play modern videogames because there are no patterns. That made no sense to me. I don't know anyone who loved videogames in the eighties who doesn't love videogames today. All the same skills apply. That made the fondness for videogames that should have been the entire premise of the movie seem cheap and hollow, restricted to a love of Pac-Man and Asteroids, and shunning the next thirty years of technology.

The bottom line is that the movie felt like it was made by someone who didn't understand nerd culture. The collective message was more about saying, "Hey, here's Pac-Man. Hey, here's Q-Bert" without knowing why seeing them was so much fun. It's like they said, "Let's make Ghostbusters with videogames" and moved on without thinking deeper than that.

The wife and kids loved Pixels, and it made a surprising amount of money, so I know I might be in the minority. But I was an arcade gamer in the eighties, so I should have loved Pixels. Instead, the whole movie made me feel ugly inside, like I had gone to a party claiming to be for nerds, but where everyone wore fake glasses and pocket protectors and fake buckteeth while saying, "See? I'm a nerd!" It felt like Adam Sandler and Kevin James just pointed at the camera and laughed at me for two hours.

And all the good stuff was in the trailer.

What did you think of Pixels?

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About the Author - Nigel G. Mitchell earned a Bachelor's in English from Arizona State University in 1999. In addition to writing for The Geek Twins, his short stories have been published in Lost Worlds, 365 Tomorrows, and Black Hole Magazine. His latest novel is Seizure.

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