‘Pixels’ Lightweight Plot Signals Game Over

Orson Welles is reported to have remarked: “The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.” That saying is brought to literal life with the latest Adam Sandler film Pixels which begins in the early 80’s with teenage boys pumping quarters into video arcade games and ends with middle-aged men (Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James, etc.) fighting recreations of those arcade monsters via CGI effects rumored to have cost the studio close to $120 million.

By the time you read this, you will have already read that Pixels is a big, fat box office bomb … Sandler’s fourth straight in a row. (I predict Sandler’s next career move will be a series of indie films in which he shows up as the estranged son of a difficult father played by a faded box-office star from the 1970’s.)

While I’m not happy Sandler’s hit on hard times, it is a relief for me to know that nothing I write is going to change the financial outlook of this film.

Because yes, the rumors are true, Pixels is pretty awful. (In it’s defense, I will say that it’s not quite as bad as I had heard … or, rather, it’s bad, yes, but no worse than other equally awful films which have raked in the millions – Jurassic World, I’m talking to YOU!.)

Pixels began life in 2010 as a short film (two minutes long) from a French filmmaker named Patrick Jean in which he imagines a number of characters from 1980’s-era video games attacking New York City and pixelating the cars, the buildings and, ultimately, the world into scattered little blocks of energy. There’s no plot beyond that; in fact I’d say that the real “purpose” of the plot is merely to showcase the groovy special effects.

Well, Hollywood’s never met a germ of an idea it hasn’t been able to mutate into a full-blown epidemic. The result is this bloated (but, at the same time, curiously anemic) retelling that’s been reconfigured to hew as closely as possible to every summer blockbuster made in the last 40 years.

Video Game Dreams

The opening sequence introduces us to the young men who will ultimately grow into the adult stars of the film. It’s four boys addicted to video games who are so good they end up being contestants in the World Championship of Video Games. Brennan, whose older self is played by Sandler, is denied first prize at Donkey Kong by a cocky, sleazy young kid named Eddie (played as an adult by Peter Dinklage) while Brennan’s two friends, Cooper and Ludlow (James and Gad) stand at his side through the whole shameful ordeal.

This fateful Championship has a number of unforeseen consequences. As it turns out Brennan takes the loss so hard he spins into a spiral of worthlessness and gives up his dream of going to MIT for engineering. When we first meet him as an adult he works as a roving tech specialist for one of the big box stores fixing people’s home electronics needs.

Because he lost at Donkey Kong.

30 years ago.

Meanwhile, something else happened that day as well –

According to the movie, NASA, in a bid to show aliens how human beings entertained themselves beam a recording of the tournament into outer space. Unfortunately the aliens misinterpret the broadcast as a declaration of war and, transforming themselves into the arcade characters, cross light years to destroy earth via live action versions of PAC-Man, Galaga, Tetris, etc.

Who woulda guessed but the only people who can save the planet are Sandler et. al. – so they put the band back together and battle the aliens.

President Cooper (Kevin James) addresses the press on the White House lawn as Violet (Michelle Monaghan), Brenner (Adam Sandler), Ludlow (Josh Gad) and Eddie (Peter Dinklage) look on

President Cooper (Kevin James) addresses the press on the White House lawn as Violet (Michelle Monaghan), Brenner (Adam Sandler), Ludlow (Josh Gad), and Eddie (Peter Dinklage) look on

And how, you might be wondering, did they get the gig? I don’t really know how to tell you this but as it turns out the nerdy loser played by Kevin James grows up to be president of the United States. While I’m not sure I want to live in a country which would elect James as President, I’m pretty certain that any alien life force coming across a planet where James is a world leader would probably drive right on by, figuring there’s nothing here worth fighting over.

But in the world of Pixels nothing really makes any sense. Global armies, political heads-of-state, science, technology, reality … nothing is allowed to intrude into the world of these four men who seem not to have even entered puberty, let alone become mature adults. Thanks to Chris Columbus’ flat, unimaginative direction, you spend a lot of this movie feeling like you’ve eavesdropped on a bunch of post-adolescent boys hanging out at a 7-Eleven: “You know what’d be cool? If Q-Bert was actually, like, a real thing!” “No, dude, what’s even cooler would be if the spaceships in Galaga came to life and tried to blow up our school!” “It’d be totally, like, awesome if I got to miss English class so I could fight a giant Centipede coming out of the sky!”

The film never moves beyond one bored kid sharing a fever dream with his friends.

Artificial Women

Screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling attempt to interject some sense that these guys are no longer running the AV club but make the mistake of giving them love interests. If up until now Pixels has been merely dumb, here it becomes downright loopy. I wonder if Herlihy, Dowling, Sandler and Columbus actually know any women … because the three gals who show up here are even more artificial than the aliens.

Michelle Monaghan plays the woman who falls for Sandler – and get this, she’s a deputy general at the Pentagon. Though she acts, talks and dresses like the girl behind that Orange Julius counter at the mall, in Pixels she has the nuclear launch codes. Jane Krakowski plays James’ First Lady – an actress of considerable comedic skills, here she gets about three lines and is there only to look supportively at her toddler-as-Free-World-Leader husband. All the women seem to be manufactured, idealized caricatures; Gad’s squeeze, (Ashley Benson) in fact, is completely fake, being a Lara Croft like figure from one of the games.

I mean no offense to Sandler, James and Gad by saying that only in the Beavis & Butt Head world of Pixels could men who look like that get women who look like Monaghan, Krakowski and Benson. I don’t mean to imply that only gorgeous men deserve being loved, I just wish Sandler and company didn’t think only gorgeous women are worth loving.

The various arcade games are played out although you know who’s going to win the whole time – all you have to do is wait while a lot of buildings get blown up before the winner is announced.

As an actor, Sandler is probably a good video game player … the only real bright spot is Gad playing a grown-up-living-in-his-Moms’-basement-conspiracy-nut. He’s given several opportunities to go off on what seems like wildly improvised comedy riffs and these moments are the best in the movie. Even with as entertaining as they are, however, they certainly can’t redeem this long, continuous mistake of a film.

Kevin James as President? I think I’ll vote for Trump.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based writer and critic.