Reading a review of an Adam Sandler movie can feel as predictable as one of the films themselves. You know the film will be dumb and the review will be merciless (You can park that Punch-Drunk Love argument right now. That was 13 years ago!)”
The question we must ask is this: how does Adam Sandler feel about his films? Looking at his particularly mopey expression throughout Pixels, one can’t help but feel he’s bored with this schtick. He must be tired of playing samey, whiney, often quite reprehensible dweebs who fall ass-backwards into good fortune. Some may find occasional laughs in the physical comedy of some of his earlier output (think Happy Gilmore or The Wedding Singer) but by the time we arrive at Pixels, it’s clear he’s just making this stuff to keep the cash flowing, to rehash the same tropes, prejudices and base humour, and to give an occasional gig to his chums. Why else is Kevin James playing the President of the United States?
Pixels sees Earth being invaded by Space Invaders. Yes, aliens have turned beloved arcade games into a vehicle for challenging puny earthlings to an intergalactic arcade battle. The idea for Pixels comes from a 2010 short film of the same name by Patrick Jean. The idea has enough energy to sustain a 2-minute short, but stretching it to 106 minutes does it no favours. The man anointed to do this stretching from the director’s chair is Chris Columbus, a man familiar with acts of manipulation so horrific they’d put Iago to shame. He tore open parents’ wallets by helming the first two Harry Potter films, and squeezed out every last teardrop from audiences with the emotionally dishonest likes of Stepmom and Bicentennial Man. However, even this arch manipulator cannot make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear of an idea. Think about it; the likes of Pac-Man and Centipede are acknowledged cultural artefacts, but attempting to either mock or praise ‘80s gamer culture is 25 years too late, and counting.
Sandler plays Steve Brenner, a ‘80s gamer kid who now installs electronics for a living. His best friend Cooper (Kevin James) grew up to become leader of the free world. Sandler-esque wish fulfilment is firmly in place. After all, this is a film in which grown men save the world via video game. Given that there are already perfectly good films out there that deal with the pains of growing up (Inside Out), or the perils of arrested development (Eden), Pixels is content to take its idea at face value. Pixelated space stuff flies at the screen, Sandler and co. blast it, repeat. When all the pixelated perils start flying out of the sky, isn’t it just lucky that the US President is good friends with a Centipede champion?
Pixels might have had at least a little memorability if it was celebrating the nerd-as-asskicker, but it never decides on its message. Is the geek being acknowledged or mocked? As evidence to the latter, assisting Sandler and James on their quest to save Earth is Josh Gad as Ludlow, another childhood pal who has grown up into a conspiracy theory-spouting shut-in whose only romantic interest is a video game sword-swinging heroine. Naturally, she’s scantily clad. Happy Madison Productions cares little for the sensitivities of anyone who isn’t Adam Sandler or his pals. Take the female characters in this film; a fine screen presence like Michelle Monaghan is saddled with playing a stuck-up military higher-up who falls for Sandler, because that’s what happens in Sandler’s world of simplistic wish fulfilment. Meanwhile, there’s more than a hint of homophobia throughout, and a scene where an African-American soldier shakes hands with James’ president, only to reiterate that Obama is his homeboy, is just plain unnecessary. Besides wasting a sizeable budget and any opportunity for insightful commentary, Pixels leaves a bevy of able screen talent flailing about with nothing to do. Goodness knows what Brian Cox or Peter Dinklage is doing in this mess (as US Army general and rival gamer respectively), and Sean Bean’s British Army officer doesn’t even die a messy death at Pac-Man’s mandibles. By the time a surprise sportstar cameo arrives, you’ll wonder what this person was offered to be a party to this death knell of mirth.
Also ill-served by the scribbled insult-o-rama posing as a script are the game characters being mooted as our enemies. Between a rueful need to focus on the human ‘characters’, and indifferent action directing and editing, the likes of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong offer no threat or interest. The blocky special effects must be part of the joke, if there is one. We can only guess there is, because Pixels is a comedic dead zone. No joke is uttered that isn’t nonsensical, insulting or mean-spirited. Families will doubtlessly be suckered into seeing this but, while Sandler has toned down his language, there is a cruel streak to this film (and most of Sandler’s films) that ensure most any taste will be offended, even at a PG-13 summer blockbuster level. Ahead of opening on this side of the pond, Pixels is reportedly underperforming at the US box office. This might give Sandler’s critics pause, but remember: for every Pixels or That’s My Boy that flops, there’s a Grown Ups or Blended waiting to pick up the flak. The power is in your hands; Pixels just isn’t worth your quarters.