Adam Sandler has spent so many years producing one abominable film after another (while still inexplicably turning tidy profits) that there’s an understandable impulse to assail anything with the faintest echoes of his previous affronts to cinema.
So when grown men are called upon to employ their dormant video gaming skills to save Earth in Pixels, it automatically has to be an example of Sandler’s arrested development. When the geeks get the beautiful, younger girls, it’s another instance of male wish fulfillment.
Or perhaps Pixels is just kooky, kitschy amusement along the lines of Ghostbusters, or even Sharknado.
In 1982, NASA launched a time capsule carrying the era’s entertainment artifacts, including a catalog of arcade games such as Galaga, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Centipede and Space Invaders. Aliens in the far reaches of the cosmos misinterpret the games as an invitation for an intergalactic throwdown. They return our technology, à la V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, by upgrading classic games to real versions. The giant 3-D combatants are more voxels than pixels—but let’s stay out of that rabbit hole.
When conventional military means prove ineffectual, it falls to a cadre of jumpsuited former gamers to save the day. Sandler’s Sam Brenner is a divorcée working as a Geek Squad-style tech installer. His childhood best friend, Will Cooper (Kevin James), is, well, President of the United States. Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) is a nutty, tech-savvy conspiracy theorist. And cocky blowhard Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), who once bested Sam as the king of Donkey Kong, is an imprisoned hacker. Eddie’s price for his assistance is a full pardon plus a rendezvous with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in the Lincoln Bedroom—but he settles for just Serena and a handshake.
You don’t need to be a child of the 1980s to like Pixels, but it helps. The gamers beat back a Centipede in Hyde Park using algorithmic patterns. When a giant Pac-Man careens through the side streets of New York City, the “ghosts” that stop him are upfitted MINI Coopers. The aliens communicate through video projections of Ronald Reagan, Hall & Oates, Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, Max Headroom and the Madonna of “Lucky Star.” There are Q*bert and Frogger cameos. All of this tickles the funnybones of 40-somethings like me, but it also narrows the film’s target audience.
Based on a 2010 French short by Patrick Jean, Pixels is directed by the competent Chris Columbus (Home Alone, the first two Harry Potter movies), which already gives it a leg up on films helmed by Sandler’s usual lackeys. But beyond the absence of scatological yucks (save for one needless moment when a fearful Q*bert pees on himself), the biggest difference between this and Sandler’s usual cinematic dumpster fires is that his vanity tics are part of the joke.
James as POTUS is silly in the same way as Mark Cuban playing the part in Sharknado 3, but that’s the gag. Gad’s character pines for Lady Lisa from a game called Dojo Quest, but when he finally liplocks her actualized incarnation, it only underscores his social oddity. OK, Sam eventually earns the affections of an attractive military weapons expert (Michelle Monaghan), but an unlikely love interest isn’t a fatal flaw.
The film runs about 15 minutes past the breaking point of its premise, which includes latent commentary on our commercialized society in the symbolism of recycled pop culture eventually turning on us. About the time we tire of Gad’s comic flop sweat, Dinklage comes along to steal the show with his rockin’ mullet, aviator shades and eccentric non sequiturs. Along with Brian Cox and Sean Bean as military heavies, he channels his gravitas into the zaniness. Though not a classic comedy, Pixels is an enjoyable throwaway farce, and there’s a place in the theater for that, too.