I really have no idea where to start with this. Usually when I sit down to write a review I’ll have an angle by which to tackle a film, but with Pixels, I’m at a loss. I don’t really know who the film is for. Is it a comedy appealing to gamer culture? Nope…unless you’re still playing Pac-Man. Is it for kids? I wouldn’t think so since it’s got so many jokes they wouldn’t understand…until you see Q’Bert peeing himself. Is it for the 30/40 year olds who would remember these arcade games fondly? Not really unless you hate yourself for not growing up. Is it even for Adam Sandler fans? Uh, no to that either since he’s lacking the bite he arguably still has.
So what even is this? Pixels is a film that would’ve excelled in theaters about thirty years ago with all of the bad and good implications that come with it.
Director: Chris Columbus
Release Date: July 24, 2015
In Pixels, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) was a kid who was nearly the Donkey Kong National Champion. After losing the big match against Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), he resigns to an unfulfilling life of installing televisions for a Best Buy-esque company while his best friend “Chewie” (Kevin James) becomes a down on his luck President of the Untied States. When a probe full of their videogames is seen as an act of war by an alien race, Sam and conspiracy nut Ludlow (Josh Gad) have to step up and save the world from three rounds of pixel fueled shenanigans. Also Lt. Colonel Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) and her son are there to give Sam something to fight for, I guess.
Pixels may share some troubling similarities with Adam Sandler’s recent glut of films (which I’ll get to in a minute), but it’s also got a faint sense of the good kind of nostalgia. You see, his standard schlub act works well here since the entire film is meant to invoke that 80s “average guy with inane skill becomes big hero” trope. And because it works so well, the rest of the film almost plays out like one of Sandler’s early 90s comedies (albeit without the jokes). In terms of overall tone, once the film delves deep into the premise and Sam starts playing against the aliens, Pixels is a lot of healthy fun. Everything’s wonderfully simplified. The aliens (who deliver their messages through stock footage of 80s icons) don’t have a motive other than to destroy the Earth (or needing a million allowances worth of quarters to do their laundry), the games involved (like Breakout, Centipede, and Pac-Man) aren’t filled with complicated rules to weigh the fun down, and the pixelated monsters themselves are gorgeous.
But that’s unfortunately where the positive stuff ends.
Pixels may be a reminder of the fun these kinds of movies used to be, but it also reminds you of how much movies have evolved since then. Because Pixels leans so heavily on the past, it can’t help but trudge up all of the problematic elements of the era it wants to embody. For example, there are only two women featured in the film and they’re treated horribly (which doesn’t reflect well on the current perception of gaming culture as a whole). Lt. Colonel Van Patten is meant to be this “strong” female character, and she even gets one well choreographed bit toward the end, but her first introduction is belittled by Sandler’s character. After he compliments her looks, he finds her crying as a result of her sudden divorce not two minutes later. And the second character, a videogame heroine named Lady Lisa, is literally a trophy the aliens give the Earth for winning one of the games which one of the characters ends up marrying. She gets no dialogue, and ends up with most mentally unstable of the “Arcaders” Ludlow, the conspiracy nut who lives with his grandmother and worships the character.
The lack of agency just feeds into the old mindset of gamers being older white males with social misgivings. One of the running jokes is these guys are only acknowledged as “the nerds.” In this day and age where every literal kid and grandparent is able to play games on some kind of device, it’s jarring to go back to hearing such close mindedness. Especially from a film that wants to celebrate these games (going so far as to have Sam explain why arcades were so important, and feature a scene where he decries the current violent nature of videogames). It’s totally a “cake and eat it too” situation where Pixels definitely wants to mirror classic films like Ghostbusters, yet have a cynical eye toward the folks who might enjoy themselves while watching. It’s that kind of self loathing that brings the whole film down.
There’s just so much more to talk about, yet so little time. That’s why I was so confused when I initially started writing this review. Even after all of this, I still have idea who Pixels is meant for, nor do I know who to blame for its existence. I can’t even say Adam Sandler did a bad job because he actually wasn’t his usual self. Lacking his usual lethargic attitude (which he starts off with then hastily has to change out of thanks to some well placed dialogue degrading his love of shorts), Sandler’s never been more physical. There’s also a lack of the standard poop and fart jokes you’d expect because the film’s not really for kids (there’s no way they’d appreciate seeing Paperboy and Joust sprites on the same screen).
Oh right, I guess I should mention there were zero jokes that appealed to me. While there is fun in the way sequences are set up, none of the fun is stemmed from the dialogue. Also, I saw in 3D and would definitely recommend seeing the pixelated monsters in that fashion. Then again, maybe you should avoid this altogether so you don’t end up feeling the same confusion? I don’t know.
Pixels plays so poorly, it doesn’t even get to put its initials on the high score screen.