Pixels probably started off as a germ of an idea in writer-director Patrick Jean’s head while he was stoned out of his mind and feeling all nostalgic and emotional and yearning to go back to a simpler time: the time of wholesome communities where arcade gaming was the awesomest social hangout. He probably sobered up much later and decided to make a short film about those arcade games taking over the world, an award-winning short film at that.
Cut to 2015 and you have currently the most reviled comedian in Hollywood (Adam Sandler) starring in a full-blown feature film version of it. The appeal in taking such a step is understandable: nostalgia is a strong weapon. Alien invasion action films have a built-in, if slightly exhausted market. The Lego Movie did wonders only recently, so another brand tie-up film could possibly cash-in on the so-far underexploited market.
Director Chris Columbus, instead, plays it completely straight and largely sober, relying on the past generation’s love for Pacman and his mates only to get them into the theaters, but not really on entertaining them.
The film, about an alien race taking the form of various arcade games like Pacman and Centipede and Donkey Kong to attack Earth, functions on two tangents separate from each other. One tangent is the typical and oft-seen pending-apocalypse, rising-hero, realizing-destiny thread, in which Sandler’s nerdy character Brenner is the only one equipped with the knowledge and skills to thwart the alien invasion, because even though he’s a tech-installation guy at a company, he’s best friends with the President of the United States and runners-up at the Arcade Games World Championship in 1982.
The other, completely separate tangent belongs to the alien arcade games that destroy buildings and kill people by pixelating them. The real opportunity to differentiate the film from other “end of the world” disasters and to really make an emotional connect with the audience lay on this tangent. The moral implications were limitless.
It could’ve been a commentary on mankind’s affection for all things superficial while avoiding human connection. The very technology, the very “entertainment” that we’re overdressed with as a species could eventually be our own downfall is a message that could’ve been timely and relevant considering today’s selfie snapping generation.
Maybe it could’ve served as reminiscent trip to our past, to a time when even meaningless and frivolous fun like arcade gaming involved spending face-to-face time with family and friends, in contrast to fixing your eyes on a flat screen TV and strapping on a pair of headphones and becoming oblivious to the real, tangible world around you.
Alas, Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling’s script and Chris Columbus’s direction stubbornly refuse to list off the shiny cover and look deeply for any other dimension to this simple-yet-fun idea. Much like the adolescent kids that played these games, they’re so captivated by the prospect of snazzy visual effects and mass mayhem that they never get to the hurt that this destruction causes, especially when it’s caused by “things” we spent hours and hours with as kids.
As far as the dimension it does operate in, it isn’t bad as it could’ve been, but it isn’t much of a hoot either. The film has more loopholes than a village road has potholes, and its lapses in logic are more glaring than floodlights in a cricket stadium. On the one hand, no other champion/runners up from other World Championships are ever approached to help out in saving the WORLD (not just the US, if that would’ve been your excuse). On the other, the lab techs at the White House develop and make usable alien-defeating technology faster than finishing a round of Pacman.
Plus, you have no idea at all why the aliens are even playing this game at all. Why would they give the humans three lives (chances) to defeat them? Why give them another chance even after finding out they broke the rules of the game? Why not just come as the arcade game characters that they took as a declaration of war and destroy the Earth in the first place, instead of pussyfooting around? It’s almost as if they don’t really want to win the war at all, more than willing to be defeated and returning to their home planet.
But at least someone finally had the sense to cut out some of Sandler’s jokes and give a bit more footage and comic potential to other supporting characters, including Brenner’s childhood friend/conspiracy theorist Ludlow and criminal convict/his childhood arcade game competitor Eddie Plant, who bring some humor to the otherwise predictable proceedings. Attractive camera work by Amir Mokri and some pretty efficient visual effects help keep things moving along.
For the most part, Sandler himself tries to fight every natural instinct in his body to annoy audiences and plays his part pretty straightforward. No toilet humor, no crass gags, no celebrity cameos. Sure, it makes his lead character pretty unspectacular and the film devoid of any charm, but it’s better to bore people to death than to repulse them. Kevin James as the President (LOL) lacks any comic flair or prospects at all. Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage are occasionally fun to watch, though you wish they got a better film than this to display their comic timing. Michelle Monaghan is beautiful and charming as always, but doesn’t get to have too much fun.
Even though my biggest apprehension about the film (Sandler’s trademark crude humor + younger-skewing arcade game film = big no no) didn’t come true (thank Lord for small mercies) and there’s nothing horrifically or catastrophically wrong with Chris Columbus’s Pixels, it’s hardly a film that’ll join those special memories of you playing those enjoyable arcade games hours at end as children. Forgettable at best and a good concept squandered away at worst, it’s another miss in a long (looooonnnggg) list of misses for star Adam Sandler.