Hey! What if we made a movie about giant robots fighting giant dinosaur monsters? Or maybe of a future where apes rule the planet and humans are slaves? Or, wait, what about a kid who sees his parents killed by a thug and grows up to become an angry vigilante, dispensing justice through his secret identity? Nah, all been done before. Okay, how about this: An alien race who attacks Earth in the guise of 80s video games?
Yes, that’s the premise of ‘Pixels‘ and it’s a mess of a film that just cannot figure out what it wants to be as it unspools. Is it a raunchy comedy? An action movie? A sci-fi drama? Or a children’s film? Turns out it’s rather none of these but instead a sloppy mess with too little (director) Chris Columbus and far too much of Adam Sandler, with all the sophomoric and inappropriate humor that brings with it.
The film starts out pleasantly enough in 1982 with Sam (Anthony Ippolito), his buddy Will (Jared Riley), new friend Ludlow (Jacob Shinder) and self-important video game superstar Eddie “Fireblaster” (Andrew Bambridge) competing for the title of best video game player in the world. The tie breaker is the challenging game Donkey Kong, with Sam and Eddie head to head, and a video tape of the competition is sent into space because, well, because that propels the story.
An alien race finds the tape, builds a “pixelation” weapon, and 30 years later attacks Earth in the guise of the classic game Galaga. Then attacks London as Centipede, then New York City as Pac-Man. Winner takes the planet. The gang has grown up and grown apart, however, and while Sam (Adam Sandler) is now a “nerd” home theater installer, Will (Kevin James) is President of the United States, Ludlow (Josh Gad) is a conspiracy nut who lives with his grandma and Eddie (Peter Dinklage)? Well, he’s become quite the hacker and is in prison when the alien attacks start.
The military get involved — after the first attack is on a US Army base in Guam — and that brings in the predictably beautiful DARPA scientist Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan). Before we learn who she is, however, Sam comes to install Van Patten’s new home theater, which leads to the most cringeworthy scene in a film full of painful scenes, where Violet is hiding in her bedroom closet, crying about her divorce and drinking white wine out of a sippy cup. No worries, sensitive Sam joins her and commiserates, a scene that’s both extraordinarily improbable and idiotic.
There are various other story elements that are all so predictable that they’re not even fun. They’re just dumb, and any film that posits the perpetually goofy and dim-witted Kevin James as President of the United States? That’s too big a “suspension of disbelief” moment for this viewer, without going any further into the story.
And yet the visual effects really are quite cool. That’s the one-trick pony of this tiny rodeo. In fact, ‘Pixels’ was inspired by a short YouTube film by Patrick Jean that garnered huge views with its aliens that “pixelated” and destroyed anything they touched. Makes for a good demo reel, and some of the visuals are quite fun, but it just isn’t sufficient for a movie, either for children or adults. And the combination of child-friendly Chris Columbus (who most famously directed ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’) and the raunchy Adam Sandler just doesn’t add up to something viewable.
If you want to enjoy some 80s video game nostalgia, I instead recommend the delightful animated ‘Wreck-It Ralph‘ or grab a copy of the terrific book ‘Ready Player One‘ while you’re waiting for that cinema treatment to be released. But ‘Pixels’? It’s not worth the quarter you’d have to put into the slot to play.