Varese Sarabande Records
Adam Sandler would do well to listen to “Game On,” which blares over the end credits of his latest movie, Pixels. “This is not a game now, nobody can save you /Spent up all your change and now your turn is done” sings Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden as he pumps up Waka Flock Flame for improbable lyrics about video arcade stuntin’. As a merchandising tie-in, “Game On” mashes up two artists whose one shared interest is the contract they both signed. As a wake up call though, it’s unintentionally prescient, blasting out the very words Sandler has refused to hear for the past decade as his comedy persona has morphed from the underdog with something to prove to the sweatpants-wearing schlub yelling that he’s “still got it.”
Rest assured, Pixels fits right in with Adam Sandler’s string of films designed around a personality rather than an idea. After intercepting a NASA time capsule from 1982, aliens misinterpret the planet’s game culture as a pixelated challenge and return decades later with a three-round battle for the fate of Earth through angry, life-sized versions of Donkey Kong and Centipede. You can already feel the short film this was based off of straining to cover 90 minutes, and you can feel the nostalgia as Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” plays to an adolescent Brenner’s (Sandler) neighborhood bike ride to the arcade. It’s also the lazy pop-music bridge to Henry Jackman’s throwback score. The opening notes of “Invasion,” the twinkling curiosity of “Q*Bert” and the flutes of “Centipede” pillage the galactic wonder of Tatooine’s soundscapes and the twilight alarmism of Close Encounters. Citing John Williams as an influence, Jackman is right there to keep pace with the Sandler Factory’s obsession with mullets and classic rock.
Pixels is overstuffed with action cues: “Hand-Eye Coordination,” “Call in the Cavalry,” “Gobble or Be Gobbled,” “Shoot ‘Em Up,” and “A Dream Come True” are all united by snare rolls and swells. “Roll Out the Barrels” is a suite-like combination of love themes and hero music for the now-grown Brenner and his rag-tag team of arcade defenders — childhood dork friend Ludlow (Josh Gad), psychotic gaming prodigy Eddie (Peter Dinklage) and military weapons developer/requisite love interest Violet (Michelle Monaghan). The war marches are as flat as the characters, a blasé whirlwind of short-twitch impulses that push the limits of how many goose stepping string batteries one can bear in 38 minutes.
As an endurance test, Pixels is more monotonous than strenuous listening; its greater offense is the earnestness of its presentation. “Trophy for the Victors,” a brief celebration at the film’s mid-point, struts to a classical flourish with swashbuckling cymbals crashes. “High Score,” yet another celebration, is sweetly smooth and tinted with the suggestion of a hard-won battle. But Sandler and company aren’t fighting a war; they’re halfheartedly yelling nonsense at CGI asteroids. Anyone can be a hero when the sole requirement is to pick up a laser gun and blast away at Galaga aliens. This is a world where Kevin James can be elected President of the United States, where his childhood buddies can strut into the Oval Office as if it’s an ornately decorated man cave (“To the White House”). Jackman’s straight-faced writing has only encouraged the Happy Madison bunch’s silly wish-fulfillment, where everyone wants credit and no one wants to put in the work.
In a vacuum, Pixels sounds like classical hero fare, blissfully unaware that Adam Sandler’s phoned-in mugging isn’t a clever jab at the rousing motives and military cues playing behind him. In context, Henry Jackman’s music is hollow noise, a cynical distillation of the expected highs and lows of popcorn escapism. His music is not comedically undermining action star machismo or even reminiscing about older, less mediocre Happy Madison productions. With Sandler, the joke here is that there isn’t one.