Pixels is exactly what you think it is.
It’s not really worth hating, exactly, but nor is it doing much to earn your love. Like the old arcade game icons it trots out for what is, essentially, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man part of Ghostbusters repeated four times, director Chris Columbus is a relic of the ’80s hoping to coast on nostalgia and familiar touchstones to gain your inner child’s heart by default. Ironically, just as the movie points out that the vintage games are most beatable because they follow patterns, Pixels will get a deserved critical beatdown because of the way it does likewise.
You already know why this movie is likely to suck, so let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. The posters were cool. The effects are excellent, especially the real-scale Donkey Kong screen in 3D. But there’s nothing in the movie that wasn’t already done just as well in the short film it’s based on, and as a bonus, that short had no hack comedic actors in it trying desperately to grab your attention.
The premise of Pixels is that aliens have misread a video depicting ’80s arcade games that they found on a space probe, and viewed it as a challenge by earth to a series of gladiatorial duels. Computer fixer Brenner (Adam Sandler) just happens to be BFFs with U.S. president “Chewie” Cooper (Kevin James, god help us), and together they figure out that the aliens’ first mysterious attack follows a Galaga pattern. It takes the addition of a third childhood friend, conspiracy nut Ludlow (Josh Gad) to put the pieces together, complete with a video he recorded off late-night TV of a bunch of ’80s pop-culture icons – from Clara Peller to Ronald Reagan – making specific threats aimed at Earth.
This sets the stage for a series of battles that replicate the rules of classic arcade games, with the aliens taking on the forms of foes, and Sandler and company blasting back with special light guns that can deconstruct the attacking pixels. Given the effects and the movie being in 3D, these battles are mostly disappointing – the first big one, Centipede, literally turns into a montage, as if Columbus couldn’t be bothered to show us the whole fight…or explain why this is the only game in the fight that goes past level 1.
If you’re thinking Adam Sandler is a reason to avoid the movie, I’m here to tell you he’s a non-factor. In every way. Sandler is so bland in this it’s like he gave up trying – he’s neither hateable nor lovable, and his only good scenes involve some early banter with Michelle Monaghan (as one of his customers who conveniently turns out to be high-ranking military, because who’d guess that about a chick, amirite?) in the brief bits before special effects take over. It’s left to Josh Gad to do the kind of screechy mugging Sandler used to do, and he’s really bad at it in every way – though if you’re that one person in the world who ever wanted to see him karaoke Tears for Fears, this is your jam.
What’s most disappointing about Pixels is the way it fails to add any kind of interesting twists to its rote material. The one really great in-joke it sets up is to have Peter Dinklage show up essentially playing and looking like Billy Mitchell from The King of Kong…and then have him blow it by opening his mouth to unleash what sounds like a second-rate Michael Clarke Duncan impersonation; one that might almost be offensive if it actually worked. Meanwhile, a couple of scenes set up a potential villain in Brian Cox’s Admiral Porter, who hates the president he serves under…and then nothing more is ever done with that, save a weirdly homophobic joke that’s just one of many ’80s-style “wouldn’t it be uncomfortable if somebody acted gay right now?” gags. That kind of shtick should have been buried alongside the Atari E.T. games, at the same time.
There ought to be a fun movie in here, but it’s like every chance that existed to do something great, the filmmakers did the opposite. Did they watch Wreck-It Ralph and say “Let’s make totally different choices, because who wants to be this good?” You have to wonder. We get a Pac-Man battle that cleverly uses New York streets as a game grid yet never gives us an actual overhead view except via computer simulation, an abridged Centipede, and an all-out attack on Washington DC that still feels like it was shot on a backlot for cheap. Sandler’s ’80s fetish as seen in The Wedding Singer is on full display, but his repeated claim that nerds rule feels forced – for a guy who has made a career pandering to fratboy sensibilities by doing the shtick that comes naturally, he’s unconvincing as a dork whose otherwise-useless talents can suddenly save the world. There are subtle hints that his character may be autistic, which would be interesting, at least; but the film never really has the balls to go there.
Don’t even get me started on the way Q*Bert gets turned into a Minions rip-off – and then becomes the butt of jokes involving him urinating and having sex. I suppose that’s at least a bold move, but it’s still terrible.
Since the movie will probably do great anyway, my best hope is that it inspires Disney to revive Tron 3, and show the world what a real humans vs. video games franchise looks like. In actuality, though, the best I can probably hope for is that Pixels 2 will costar Vanilla Ice.