Adam Sandler is the perfect star for the near complete disaster that is Pixels. The actor hasn’t had a critical hit in over half a decade, and the box office takes for his movies have been trending in the wrong direction for almost as long. So, a project that looks back to the good old days fits nicely with how the Sand Man might feel personally, because Pixels is steeped in the worst kind of nostalgia. The kind that plays on those false notions lingering at the back of your mind; everything used to be so awesome back in the day. If now could be like then, I would rule the world.
The story is about as high concept as they come. Sam Brenner (Sandler) was a teenage arcade game superstar who became a tech geek when he grew up. He is called to save the world when an alien planet intercepts a space capsule and misinterprets a videotape containing footage from an arcade game tournament as an act of war. Instead of nuclear weapons and ICBMs, they send Pac-Man.
This movie is a poorly executed wish fulfillment fantasy for schlubs that is confused about who its target audience is. The wish fulfillment motif is aimed squarely at video game enthusiasts around Sandler’s age, but Pixels is rated PG-13, so the filmmakers clearly wanted the youth market’s money as well. The inept way the filmmakers try to reach their desired audience creates a tonal disconnect, and that’s only one of the film’s problems. It’s also painfully derivative and features shockingly bad acting considering the talent involved. The movie fails miserably on a basic storytelling level, with plot holes and logic problems that would only be forgivable if they were featured in an 8-bit side-scrolling adventure. And for a comedy, it is woefully unfunny.
The tone of Pixels is completely confused, and consequently a little disturbing. It includes elements like a cute and cuddly CGI rendered Q-bert becoming a kid-friendly sidekick, so Pixels works ostensibly as a family movie. But Josh Gad’s character being rewarded with a trophy girlfriend who is literally treated as an object is something that also happens. Anyone familiar with Sandler’s early canon shouldn’t be too surprised that it only gets crasser from there. We get jokes about Eddie (the arcade champion bad boy played by Peter Dinklage) refusing to help save Earth from (literal) space invaders unless the president (Kevin James) can arrange a ménage a trois between himself, Serena Williams, and Martha Stewart. When both Williams and Stewart make cameo appearances, the laziness of the filmmakers shines through, as though stunt casting alone should equal comedy gold.
Pixel’s script plays like a bad sitcom, with eye-roll inducing one-liners followed by holds for audience laughter. Only, in the theater I was sitting, no one was laughing. A typical exchange:
Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan, just before getting on the phone to fire her agent)
How did you do that so fast?
Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage, just after feeding his agent to a dragon)
Because I am the champ, Lieutenant Long Legs.
Monaghan and Dinklage aren’t the only actors I felt embarrassed for while watching Pixels, but at least their characters serve a purpose in the story. Sean Bean turns up as a UK military officer, and I have absolutely no idea what he’s doing in this thing. His character has at most 20 lines, none of which are funny, and he serves no purpose. Ditto Jane Krakowski as the First Lady to Kevin James’ President Cooper. Just in case you were wondering if James could pull off being believable as the POTUS, even in a dumb comedy, he can’t. Brian Cox wins my personal “poor guy” award, though. As the bellicose Buck Turgidson-like Admiral Porter, Cox serves only to be laughed at by the other characters for being old and mean. Poor guy.
In addition to being a comedy that isn’t funny, Pixels is also completely incompetent when it comes to storytelling. One of the plot twists the audience is not encouraged to laugh at involves video game cheat codes working in the physical world, as if the presence of space invaders is enough to forget that could never work in real life. While watching the movie, I honestly got the feeling that the writer and the director just hoped nobody would notice.
Clearly, they also hoped audiences wouldn’t notice how unoriginal Pixels is. The movie was inspired by the 2010 French short film of the same name by director Patrick Jean. Even though it’s only two minutes long, and has no story to speak of, the problem isn’t the longer film’s source material. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the 2010 short is clever and fun. No, this Pixel’s problems come from not only taking inspiration from other movies, but ripping them off completely. Anyone familiar with the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters will instantly recognize the dynamic between Dinklage’s Eddie Plant and Sandler’s Sam Brenner. It’s the same between real life bad boy Billy Mitchell (Dinklage even sports the same mullet) and real life good guy Steve Wiebe. Even the game that Eddie bests Sam at is the same as the one that inspired the doc: Donkey Kong.
As for the romantic storyline between Sandler and Monaghan, just close your eyes and you can replay the relationship between Sandler and Bridgette Wilson in Billy Madison. That’s all screenwriter Tim Herlihy did. It is note for note the exact same arc, which suggests that Herlihy, who also wrote Sandler’s Happy Gilmore and the aforementioned Madison, is stuck in the same glory days of yesteryear with his longtime collaborator. Meaning we’ve come full circle in regards to Pixels being a sad wish fulfillment fantasy for schlubby guys. Nico Lang writes intelligently here about “the girl” in all of Sandler’s movies, a trope with no signs of disappearing.
The only element of Pixels that saved it from being a complete waste of time was the visuals. The graphics team that brought old school video games like Galaga and Centipede to life did so splendidly. The sequence where every 8-bit arcade game character you can think of makes an appearance was entertaining. My personal favorite one to spot was Joust. I loved that game. The communiqués from the aliens were also well crafted. They beam down video messages using old footage of 80s pop stars (Madonna and Tattoo from Fantasy Island make appearances), manipulating their mouths to deliver the rules and consequences of the challenge.
Sadly, these great visuals went completely to waste in a movie that’s best forgotten. It’s never a good sign when a movie makes you disengage from what’s happening onscreen to think about playing video games. Instead of seeing Pixels, it would have been a better use of my time to stay home and play Frogger and Pac-Man for two hours.
Why it got 1.5 stars:
- It’s an unfunny comedy with a brain-dead story that treats women like objects.
- The half star is for the visual effects. They really do look good.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I only mentioned Josh Gad in the review once, but he deserves more. His performance oscillates between quiet mumbling and fingernails-on-a-chalkboard shrieking. I’m a pacifist, but I wanted to do bad things to him by the end of this movie. And seriously, read the Nico Lang article I linked to in the review. It’s great.
- So, Punch-Drunk Love was a complete fluke for Sandler, right? He’s tried to do SOMETHING else a few other times (Reign Over Me, which I haven’t seen, but I heard is pretty good), but I feel comfortable in saying he will pursue the art of cashing a check while simultaneously taking a vacation unto the end of his days.
- If Pixels doesn’t set a new record for Razzie nominations/wins, I will be shocked.
- What the HELL is Dan Aykroyd doing in this movie? He appears for no more than 2 minutes, and does NOTHING. You get the slightest hint of his character from Tommy Boy. Otherwise, I was left thinking that he is so impressed with his own Dan Aykroyd-y-ness that he feels just being on the screen is enough to make any filmgoer happy.