All we are asking is that you play by the rules. And this doesn’t seem like too terrible of a request because, after all, they are your rules. You made up the rules! And you can make any rule that you want! But, once you set those rules, you should really have to follow the rules. For instance, if you introduce a character that can fly, great. But that doesn’t mean everyone can all of a sudden fly. The rules can’t change willy-nilly, because that sort of thing makes some people (myself included) mad. That sort of thing contributes to people hating your movie.
That said, Pixels, a movie that is being demolished by critics, is one of the worst offenders of movie rule-breaking in recent memory. And, yes, a story about classic arcade video game characters attacking Earth aimed at mainstream audiences does need to have some sort of established rules. An audience can accept something unusual or remarkable happening as long as the unusual or remarkable thing stays consistent. We want to see something unusual or remarkable! That’s why we pay money to go to the movie theater! The mundane is waiting for us everywhere, who needs more of that? But, dammit, this unusual or remarkable thing needs to stay within the confines of what we we’re told it can and can’t do.
At the risk of piling on, let’s take a look at Pixels — a movie with a concept that should have been the easiest summer slam dunk ever produced, but was still screwed up by Adam Sandler and his cronies. The film begins in 1982 when a time capsule is shot into space that contains footage of classic arcade games. Aliens then intercept this time capsule, interpret what they find as a threat, then attack Earth using the characters from these games. Then a bunch of ex-arcade game champions, led by Adam Sandler, are recruited to fight these aliens.
Okay! This is a fun premise! So, all we need to do is take what we know in that description, then add that to the established rules of living on Earth in 2015 (because unless it’s noted elsewhere, this is all we have to go on) and we have ourselves a coherent movie. Of course, that’s not what happens.
The easiest rule to follow is that the aliens have a video from 1982. So, all the aliens know about us should come from 1982 or before. This is the main premise of the entire movie. We know we’re in trouble even with this simple rule when, early in the film, during a flashback scene set in 1982, one of the young version of the characters references that he’s attracted to model and subsequent singer of “Touch Me (I Want Your Body),” Samantha Fox. She didn’t start modeling until 1983 and didn’t become truly famous until 1986. This discrepancy sets the tone for the entire movie.
Now flash forward to 2015, and, over the course of the rest of the movie, the aliens send hidden messages to Earth using dubbed-over video from the time capsule sent into space in 1982. So, for instance, the video is of Madonna, but she’s talking about how she’s going to destroy Earth. Fair enough. Well, except even director Chris Columbus admits that that Madonna clip is from 1984. Later, Max Headroom shows up, a character that wasn’t invented until 1984. The aliens also reference the famous Wendy’s commercial that uses the phrase “Where’s the Beef?” — this commercial also didn’t air until 1984. (If Pixels wanted to reference so many popular culture moments from 1984, I don’t understand why the key date used wasn’t just 1984. People still went to the arcade in 1984.)
Even the ways our heroes receive these messages breaks the rules of living on Earth in 2015. Josh Gad’s character intercepts the first message while recording One Tree Hill off a UHF station in the middle of the night. That’s great, except that UHF hasn’t been allowed to carry television signals since 2009.
Even the way the characters in Pixels fight the aliens seems to be made up as it goes along. At one point, one of the video game characters becomes human with no explanation. None. It just happens. Then, Josh Gad’s character marries her.
I get why this is done. Someone thinks it makes a good joke, and they hope that people don’t notice that the dates don’t match up, or characters now have abilities that they never possessed before. When I spoke to Columbus over the weekend, this is pretty much exactly what he said. The problem is, when you do realize that the dates don’t match up, the whole thing falls apart. Again, this was YOUR rule, not mine. (It should be noted, in some movies — some very, very good movies — there really are no rules. But having no rules is a de facto rule of its own.)
Admittedly, it’s a strange thing how this works in the human brain. We are willing to accept that aliens are attacking us in the form of Pac-Man, but we aren’t willing to accept they would have footage from 1984 when the movie tells us that it only has footage from 1982. I use this as proof that we will accept almost anything as long as the filmmakers don’t break the rules that they had set.
The original Hot Tub Time Machine committed the same sin: While in 1986, a character who is from 1986 (not one of the hot tub time travelers) referenced 21 Jump Street, a television show that did not debut until April if 1987. Again, we accept a time traveling hot tub because in this world that’s been created, this hot tub can travel through time. But if the setting is 1986, no one is going to know what 21 Jump Street is. Again, if that joke is desperately needed, then set the movie in 1987. Again… just follow the rules that YOU set.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the concept of The Force is meticulously progressed throughout the three movies from something that might not even be real in the first movie, to a levitating Ewok throne by the third. Fine. But in The Phantom Menace, The Force is basically a superpower that can do anything — including, as we see at the beginning of the movie, super speed. But then later, when Obi-Wan Kenobi could really benefit from super speed, he doesn’t have that ability. During the remainder of the prequels, a Jedi never again uses super speed. The prequels have a lot of well-documented problems, but not playing by its own rules is a big reason people have such a sour relationship with them.
It’s also why most people don’t like Spider-Man 3. People can accept that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and that he would now have villains who also possessed some sort of power. In the first two Spider-Man movies, the villains were both seemingly good people who had their inventions get away from them or get the best of them. In the third, an alien that would become Venom just happens to land near Peter while he was with Mary Jane in Central Park. People can accept the rules established, but with the billions of people on this planet, that an alien would happen to crash near Peter is just too much and breaks the rules that have already been established.
Sure, all of this could be dismissed as nitpicky. But this isn’t the same thing as a shot not quite lining up after an edit, or a route taken not lining up with the how that route would work in reality, or even a minor plot point not being fully explained. These things happen after a movie is edited. It’s just part of the deal. All I’m asking is that you follow the rules you established. An audience will accept a lot, but once the rules start changing as we go along, you will lose that audience.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.