Sony presents a film directed by Chris Columbus. Screenplay by Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling; story by Tim Herlihy; based on the short film by Patrick Jean. Produced by Adam Sandler, Chris Columbus, Allen Covert, Mark Racliffe, Michael Barnathan. Music by Henry Jackman. Photographed by Amir Mokri. Edited by Hughes Winborne. Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean.
The most sadly appropriate scene in Pixels comes when a UN general (Sean Bean…yes, Sean Bean) has to clear a London park in advance of an imminent alien invasion. “We’re filming a beer commercial,” he says, in a vain attempt to avoid public panic. Pixels is a commercial, alright. It’s a commercial for beer, definitely, but also vodka, Mini-Coopers, Sony products, women knowing their place, cynically-packaged 80’s nostalgia and, above all, creepy male entitlement fantasies. It’s based on a 2010 short film by Patrick Jean (which in turn might have been inspired by an old Futurama episode), and it also feels like an unofficial riff on Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One in the way that it repackages pop culture reference points as un-ironic steps in a limp hero’s journey for boys who refuse to grow up and demand that the world should accommodate them. But, yes, officially, Pixels is based on the short. But to call it “adapted” is a bit misleading. What the filmmakers have actually done is taken a cute idea and pumped it equally full of dollars, the nastier degrees of video game culture and Adam Sandler’s massive ego. Pixels is like that boorish kid at the arcade that has all the quarters and won’t let anyone play.
It’s the kind of movie where Kevin James plays the president of the United States (I am not making this up) and former childhood friend (and current schlub) Adam Sandler is given unfettered access to the White House, even allowed to mosey into top secret conference rooms. It’s the kind of movie where Dan Aykroyd shows up in a bit part for no reason, and you wonder why, and then it all comes together an hour later when an unrelated character directly and shamelessly plugs his line of Crystal Skull vodka. It’s the kind of movie where Michelle Monaghan is made to chug a bottle of Bud Light, exhale with supreme satisfaction and make sure that we all see the label. It’s the kind of movie that capitalizes on your love of properties in such a crass way that it makes you hate them. It’s the kind of movie where, if you’re a character in it, a childhood spent pumping quarters into video games can arrogantly land you both the adulation of the world and a hot trophy girlfriend (literally). It’s unfunny and mean and joyless and pretty demonstrably sexist in uglier-than-normal ways. If you self-identify as a geek, this is a movie that for years people are wrongly going to try to convince you to see, in endless conversations that you would do well to awkwardly exit from.
Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a former arcade gamer whose life was ruined when he was beaten in a Donkey Kong championship by the ugly-hearted videogame master Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant. Brenner grew up into a mealy-mouthed techno-slave loser, and one of Pixels’ little miscalculations is how it sees Sam as a likable hero when, in actuality, he’s pathetic in his yearning for the glory days, and downright creepy in the way he cozies up to a sobbing divorcee and fishes for a drunken kiss. Brenner gets his undeserved shot at recapturing glory, though, when aliens made of pure energy invade in the form of video game characters, in misguided response to a 1980’s Earth probe crammed full of pop culture artifacts. James enlists Brenner’s help for battling the Nintendo-age monsters, and the team is filled out by both a dweeby conspiracy nut (Josh Gad, mugging disastrously) and a sprung-from-prison, grown-up Fireblaster (Peter Dinklage). Why it has to be these guys, or how video game skills can even translate into real-world battle tactics are questions that goes unanswered, as the movie is so lazy with realizing its wish-fulfillment-powered premise that it forgets to actually justify it.
Dinklage should be fun, theoretically playing a variation on Billy Mitchell, the real-life guy who actually is a Donkey Kong champion, and was the subject of his own documentary, The King of Kong (the director of that movie, Seth Gordon, is a producer on this one, pointedly enough). But Dinklage’s performance, made out of bad hair, alpha dog posturing and an unfunny, exaggerated southern accent, goes down with the ship. Not that anyone is really well-served by Pixels, anyway. Gad’s character is a repository of stale jokes about overconfident creepy virgins, and James’ president never graduates beyond “he’s fat and that’s funny” humor. So dull is the movie’s comic edge that it hires Jane Krakowski to be the first lady and puts her on the bench for the entire (and I mean entire) runtime. We also get Brian Cox as a paranoid general, who is set up as a major character and then disappears from the proceedings shortly after being made the butt of a standard-issue gay panic joke.
It’s 2015, by the way.
The centerpieces, supposedly, are the sequences in which Brenner and crew have to play real-world versions of Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc., but a little of that goes a long way, especially because Pixels is so sloppy that the rules, geography and strategies of each battle make little sense. One key plot turn happens during a game battle because Dinklage’s character does something that is never set up, shown, explored, or even sufficiently explained. This is just flat-out objectively incompetent screenwriting. When the game characters smash something, the real world dissolves into pixelated blocks, and that’s kind of fun, but it’s a visual that wears out its welcome quickly. The huge sprites aren’t even asked to do anything fun, exactly. They simply exist, and the movie trusts that their existence, and their implied visual reference to things that really do exist in real life, is inherently enjoyable. This stuff is so lifeless that you start looking fondly on the moment when Q-Bert pees himself, because while that’s hacky gross-out humor, at least it’s something approaching a comic choice, miscalculated as it may be. This bizarre logic trickles down even to the running gag of James’ president donning a Chewbacca mask for no reason, or when Serena Williams shows up simply to exist as Serena Williams. Dat’s da joke. Have I mentioned the movie is not funny?
But at least Serena gets to be a human being. Monaghan’s character, although ostensibly a lieutenant colonel and technology developer, downgrades herself over the course of the movie to be nothing more than Sandler’s arm candy, a woman who in the midst of human annihilation cares only that this gross man-child likes her. (Before we get over the hump, she and Sandler bicker and snipe at each other, 90’s style, with her every attack presented as bitchy and his every insult contextualized as laudable shrew-taming.) At one point, the movie conjures a formal event in Washington out of thin air, for no conceivable reason except script laziness, and then we get the standard shot of men being amazed that the female lead of the movie looks attractive in a dress, despite the fact that (a) we’ve known this character for an hour and (b) she looks like Michelle Monaghan. That’s still better than Ashley Benson showing up as a mute video game vixen who defects in order to be Josh Gad’s submissive, smiling, eager-to-please girlfriend, which the movie counts as an unqualified victory. This is goddamn creepy. The only female character who comes out looking okay is Sandler’s ex-wife, who is never seen but on the basis of the evidence exercised sound judgment in leaving him. Oh, she’s described as awful, of course. Pixels doesn’t think very highly of women, and it blends toxic masculinity with kid-friendly appeal in such a dose not seen since…well, any Transformers movie.
Directed with cheap ambition and little finesse by Chris Columbus, a man whose expertise extends, believe it or not, to two pop culture touchstones (Home Alone and the first two Harry Potters), Pixels is surprisingly terrible. Actually, that’s not so surprising, because Columbus’ meager involvement has “hired gun” written all over it. Through and through, the movie proudly marches under the banner of Happy Madison (Sandler’s production company), and the quick appearances of Sandler regulars like the unwatchable Nick Swardson only highlight that. Sandler, for the past decade, has slowly curated his own image as an actor who barely cares about the projects he’s in, and in Pixels he’s so detached he might as well be a special effect, too. In a movie as cynically-assembled as this one, it only makes it worse when that cynicism has a face right up there on screen.
In a way, Pixels is a movie for our times. It wants nothing more to be a mash-up of Ghostbusters and The Last Starfighter. But it misses the simple fun of movies like that, or the ability to create rounded characters that we could root for. Even Starfighter, which was no masterpiece, had a sweetness to it, and it got away with its videogame conceit because it was about a young kid who happened to be good at something, but didn’t let it define his life until that thing grew in importance. Pixels, in addition to the way it embraces nostalgia like a drunken senior at a graduation party, has no innocence, no sweetness, and it simply exists to celebrate characters who are already dangerously self-absorbed. Its idea of wish fulfillment is not one of people rising to an occasion, but instead one of an entire universe sinking to their level. The strident willfulness here to supplant maturity with cheerful, unexamined juvenility is almost something to behold, as if some force in Hollywood wanted to make their own backwards masculine version of Trainwreck.
It’s rare to see a comedy that makes you so sad and depressed. Like a broken arcade machine, Pixels sucks up all your quarters and gives you nothing for your trouble. Get the manager, folks. This one is busted.