Directed by: Chris Columbus
Written by: Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox, Sean Bean
It’s been a long time since I’ve gone out of my way to see an Adam Sandler movie at the theatre. I say that not to disparage his recent output, but to prove that there was once a time when I thought the man could be funny and charming. I was hoping that his latest film might be the one that wins me back, but sadly, it is undeniable proof that Adam Sandler isn’t even trying anymore.
In Pixels, Sandler plays a 1982 arcade game champion who has grown up to be a down-on-his-luck TV repair guy. Lucky for him, his buddy who sucked at video games grew up to be the President of the United States (Kevin James), so he gets to come hang at the White House anytime he wants. When aliens show up and attack Earth in the form of 8-bit video game characters, his gaming skills suddenly make him an unlikely military consultant. Together with his paranoid buddy Ludlow (Josh Gad) and arch-nemesis Eddie (Peter Dinklage), they must suit up and win a series of live-action video games in order to save the world from complete and total pixellation.
The movie is based on a clever YouTube short by Patrick Jean, and while you could probably argue that the concept doesn’t really support more than five minutes of screen time, there was clearly potential for something more here. The idea of aliens receiving our old pop culture run-off and dumping it back on us decades later could have been an interesting commentary on nostalgia. It also could have been an opportunity to explore and poke fun at video game tropes. Instead, the aliens broadcast messages by randomly recreating obscure ’80s TV icons like Max Headroom and the whole thing is accompanied by an obvious ’80s hair metal soundtrack. That’s about as deep as it gets.
The concept is really just lazily grafted onto a typical Happy Madison comedy formula to the point where everything about this movie feels dated, not just the video game characters. (I suppose it could be an amazing act of meta-filmmaking… right?) Adam Sandler is still trying to pull off his loveable schlub routine, but it’s not working anymore. Michelle Monaghan plays his love interest (a recently divorced mom who also happens to be a military weapons specialist) and their relationship is eye-rollingly terrible stuff. There is not an ounce of romance or chemistry there at all and somehow Sandler appears even more bored than usual. We’re expected to buy into him as a hero just because that’s how these kinds of movies work, not because he actually embodies any heroic traits.
Truth be told, the movie kind of lost me as soon as I found out that Kevin James was playing the President of the United States. I guess they are attempting to channel George W. Bush (again: dated), but it’s such a weird choice. I’m not that familiar with Josh Gad but his comedy seems to involve shrieking at annoying volumes for long periods of time. Then there is Peter Dinklage, who I just felt sorry for. He seems to be playing a character based on Billy Mitchell from The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but referencing a real-life video game champ seems to be more effort than this movie wants to put in. Instead, the movie asks him to generate laughs simply by talking with a funny accent. As you can probably guess, there are a few celebrity cameos not to mention an appearance from Dan Aykroyd and his Crystal Head Vodka.
To be fair, the alien attacks do offer a few moments of respite from the juvenile jockeying among the leads. The action sequences are not particularly thrilling, but they are colourful and visually interesting. In general though, there isn’t a whole lot to these scenes other than what you’ve seen in the trailers. You might think Chris Columbus could at least bring a sense of adventure and fun to this project but he seems to be phoning it in as well. As an alien invasion film, there is no danger or suspense, no build-up, no feeling of awe whatsoever.
Clearly, most of this stuff could have been forgiven if Pixels was actually funny. As with a lot of Happy Madison productions, it is occasionally funny because of how unfunny it is, but that’s hardly a reason to recommend it. There is something fascinating about how out of touch the movie seems at times and I suppose the basic concept saves it from being a total loss.
The biggest mystery to me is who this movie was made for. The PG-13 rating and the inclusion of a cloyingly cute Q*bert would have you believe that it’s made for kids, but do they have any interest in old video games and obscure ’80s commercials? You might also assume that it is aimed at gamers, but the movie is not at all a celebration of video games, reminding us again and again what a waste of time they are. Still, if all you want is ’80s nostalgia served up in the most shallow and shameless way possible, this movie has you covered. Where’s the beef indeed. — Sean