There are mild amusements to be found in Pixels. Nostalgia oozes from every cinematic pore, as director Chris Columbus weaves these videogame relics into a modern landscape. Unfortunately, rather than fully committing to his elegant premise, Columbus gets bogged down in unconvincing character development. It’s easier to believe a ginormous Pac-Man will chomp New York City than Kevin James will ever be President of the United States! Sandler fans and little kids might enjoy this rollcall of ‘80s game icons, but everyone else should just rent Ghostbusters instead.
Pixels is a love letter to old school gamers. The original nerds who spent way too much time (and money) at the local video arcade when they should have been cutting class and sneaking cigarettes, instead. Like any self-respecting clique, these gamers had their own de facto leaders. In this particular case, it was Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), and Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad). Each competes at the 1982 World Videogame Championship, with Eddie besting Sam in a spirited game of Donkey Kong to take the title.
For reasons too difficult to fathom beyond the blank page of a desperate screenwriter, footage from the Championship was strapped to an interstellar probe and shot into space. Aliens, understandably mystified by our playtime rituals, take these games as a literal declaration of war. Now they’re heading back to modern Earth, and only the antiquated expertise of the 40-something Sam, Eddie and Ludlow can save us from annihilation.
If this sounds like the outlandish speculative premise of a YouTube video, that’s only because it is. Conceived by Patrick Jean for his 2010 Internet short film, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood saw the potential of combining nostalgia and expensive special effects. It’s a solid idea on paper; Ghostbusters with aliens instead of ghosts. The only problem is that Chis Columbus lacks the absurdist genius of Ivan Reitman, and Adam Sandler can’t hold Bill Murray’s jockstrap.
Both caveats combine to crush the promise of Pixels. Columbus fails to create a relatable story about misfit heroes, while Sandler’s mean-spirited brand of ironic detachment is too cold for such a lighthearted affair. It’s a shame, too, as the Videogame Championship sequence beautifully establishes the history of these hapless lunkheads. Sam is the savant who always chokes under pressure, Eddie is the style-over-substance rock star who cuts corners at every opportunity, and Ludlow is the eccentric dreamer who lusts over his pixelated princess, Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson). And Kevin James is their friend.
Unfortunately, Sandler’s go-to screenwriter, Tim Herlihy (who co-wrote with Timothy Dowling), feels the need to cram political intrigue, a baffling romance with Michelle Monaghan, and a bellyful of Q*bert into the story. It feels like Herlihy is operating from a checklist. “Sandler love interest: Check. Fat sidekick: Done. Marketing tie-in: Cheez Balls!” What should have been a fast-paced action yarn becomes a garbled mess of sub-plots and demographic pandering. Patrick Jean’s delightful premise didn’t stand a chance in the hands of Happy Madison’s moneymaking machine.
This checklist mentality permeates the action sequences, as well. Instead of capitalizing on the possibilities of ancient videogame characters interacting with modern landscapes, the filmmakers are content to let their creations simply run amok in an orgy of mindless destruction. It’s neither creative nor interesting. The only exception, an ingenious use of Tetris to destroy buildings, is a brief glimpse into what Pixels might have been with a little more attention to detail and little less focus on the bottom line.
Columbus’ direction, along with the editing of Peck Prior and Hughes Winborne, don’t help matters. Columbus, best known for his Home Alone films and contributions to the Harry Potter franchise, struggles to find a rhythm with this material. We wait and wait for the action to start, only to endure endlessly-labored character development when the action is over. The editing, too, is baffling at times. The alien’s first attack on Earth is haphazardly interspersed with Sandler’s ‘meet cute’ with Monaghan. What little romantic chemistry these two can muster is quickly undermined by loud bursts of action. It’s almost as though the editors were bored by this love affair (and who can blame them), so they threw in a little action to keep themselves awake.
The cast seems equally mystified by what’s happening. Monaghan is all business in the thankless love-interest role, while Brian Cox chews up the scenery like Pac-Man eating little blue pills. Josh Gad steals every scene as the conspiracy nut who loves him some “Dojo Quest,” and Dinklage becomes the embodiment of real-life videogame villain, Billy Mitchell. Both performances are pitch-perfect for this premise, which makes Sandler’s screen presence even more jarring. He lacks the self-effacing charm of a Venkman-type commentator, infusing each sarcastic barb with a tinge of ugliness. No one can fault him for his shtick—it clearly works—it just doesn’t work here. And Kevin James continues to be a comedic black hole from which laughter cannot escape.
While it may be fun to watch these cherished videogame characters grace the screen, it takes more than namechecking the classics to make a good movie. Pixels looks acceptable and younger audiences will be entertained by the kinetic visuals and splashy colors, but it’s all instantly forgettable. Something was definitely lost in translation from premise to screen. It’s like expecting an Atari console and all you get is an E.T. cartridge.