Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5); 3
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This goofy film is a dubious tale of unintended consequences but a good example of what sometimes scholars of the Gospels call “The Great Reversal.” Adam Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a self-labeled “nerd” who, dressed in an orange-short pants uniform, sets up complicated TV and gaming systems for the technological-challenged. As a child in the 1980s he and his friends Will Cooper and Ludlow Lamonsoff haunted the video arcades perfecting their gaming skills so much that Sam almost became the world champion gamer, losing in the final round to the arrogant, pint-sized Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant. Those glory days are long gone, his technical ability now only needed by those more affluent for setting up their expensive entertainment centers.
Will Cooper (Kevin James), however, exceeded all expectations by entering politics and getting elected to the US Presidency. (A real surprise in that his character seems even less astute than Donald Trump.) When the island of Guam is attacked in a strange manner by aliens, the White House military analysts are baffled when they study the video of the attack. President Cooper, however, as an experienced gamer recognizes from patterns he sees on the video reports that the attackers are from a game of his childhood, so he contacts his old friend Brenner, asking him to come to the White House to advise on how to fight the menace. This is where the first incident of The Great Reversal takes place.
That afternoon Brenner while installing a system at the home of Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a single mother whose marriage has recently broken up, hears sobbing coming from a closet. In this somewhat sexist scene he finds the woman crying on the floor of a closet and drops down to comfort her. Their tender conversation ends abruptly when she realizes that he is about to kiss her, Violet ordering him to leave. Later, as Brenner is on the road responding to the call of his White House friend, he sees in the car next to him Violet. It turns out that she is a high-ranking military attaché, a Lieutenant Colonel (Sure, such a high ranking officer would cry in a closet!). At the gate to the White House grounds she is surprised that he is not following her but is also allowed through. Inside she speaks to him scornfully as they walk swiftly through the corridor, she thinking he must be on a service call. When an aide tells her that she is expected in the command center, she looks at him triumphantly, knowing that he cannot follow her. This smug look changes to one of surprise when another aide tells Brenner that this is the way to the Oval Office. She cannot believe that the President wants to talk with this nerd!
The premise of this puffball of a movie is far more absurd than the other films Chris Columbus has directed. It seems that that video game conference where Eddie Plant nosed out Sam Brenner for the world gamer championship was videotaped for posterity. A copy of the tape was included in a NASA space probe to give any potential finder an idea of Earth civilization. (Yeah, a likely inclusion.) Well, aliens did find and watch the tape, but the unintentional consequence is that they interpreted the games as a declaration of war. Thus they decided to counterattack by producing energy creatures based on the various games.
Before you can say “Videogame Arcade” President Sam Cooper, much to the disgust of his tough as nails chief military advisor Admiral Porter (Brian Cox), has formed a team consisting of Brenner, their conspiracy theorist buddy Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), and even former enemy Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage). Another scene of Great Reversal is the dressing down that the civilians Ludlow Lamonsoff and Sam Brenner, dismissed earlier as useless by the Admiral, give to the team of burly SEALS assembled for training in video game tactics prior to their facing their enemies. Lamonsoff at times seems as small as actor Peter Dinklage as he looks up at and dresses down a giant of a man who has to take his verbal abuse because the one insulting him temporarily outranks him.
There’s a lot of action in Washington D.C. and the streets of New York City, with some colorful special effects generated battles. No doubt those who cut their gaming teeth on those arcade games of the 1980s will best enjoy the film—I know my companion, who loves digital games so much that he sells the old cartridges and services the systems, was delighted, quietly informing me of the names as their icons appeared. There are giant Pac-Mans, Centipedes, Galagas, Froggers, Centipede, and Space Invaders. Even Violet joins the team, supplying them with special weapons and suiting up for the final Donkey Kong dual, leaping about and dodging the barrels with aplomb. The cute little Q*bert, who made an appearance in Wreck-It Ralph, is the one arcade character that sides with the Earthlings, practically stealing the show in his scenes. Another scene-stealer is Ludlow, spouting his outlandish conspiracy theories and his dream goal of spending a night with Vanessa Williams and Martha Stewart. A quick shot of the unlikely pair standing at a White House window evoked lots of laughter.
This is such a silly film that I have no desire to see it again, but its escapist absurdity made me laugh enough to be glad that I did take it in. (Also I always enjoy watching the diminutive Peter Dinklage chew up the scenery, an actor I have enjoyed ever since encountering him in one of my favorite Outsider movies, The Station Agent.) My advice is, if you are unfamiliar with the group of vintage arcade games, to see it with a friend who is—and also to wait until it appears at your local cheap seats theater, with or without those expensive 3-D glasses. Those crazy enough to want to discuss this in a group can use my generic discussion guide contained on page 16 of the July 2015 issue of VP.