Could something truly be called nostalgic if you never leave the past? That’s the question unintentionally asked by Pixels, the latest man-child fantasy from Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison studios. Other questions brought up over the course of the film include “Are women always trophies for male protagonists?” and “Does anyone involved in this film know a damn thing about vintage video games?” The answers, in order, are not really, yes, and sort of.
INSERT COINS FOR MILD SPOILERS!
The action starts in 1982, when a pre-teen Sam Brenner loses a world championship arcade game tournament to the cocky Eddie Plant. 30-plus years later, Sam (Adam Sandler) is still shaken by his big gaming loss and is toiling away as an audio/video installer for the Nerd Brigade (yes, that’s really the company’s name). His best friend Will (Kevin James) happens to be the President of the United States (no, really). When aliens that base their appearance and attacks on 1980s video games start invading, the President calls Sam to help remedy the situation. I am not making any of this up.
It seems that the aliens intercepted a NASA space probe from 1982 that was filled with pop culture ephemera of the day and interpreted the video game footage as a declaration of war. Now, the earth’s only hope lies in Sam, fellow 1982 gamer Ludlow (Josh Gad), and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), who the President has to spring from prison. There’s also Michelle Monaghan as Violet Van Patten, a military weapons expert who provides the team with light-based weapons to use against aliens that take the form of Galaga and Pac-Man. I AM NOT MAKING ANY OF THIS UP.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it was based off of a (very) short film of the same name from 2010 by French director Patrick Jean. It’s also the plot of the second act of Futurama’s “Anthology Of Interest II” stretched out to an agonizing, excruciating 105 minutes. Or, if you prefer, it’s a severely dumbed-down Galaxy Quest crossed with a completely unaware and anonymous take on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. It also follows the basic byline of virtually every Adam Sandler comedy ever made: average schlub saves the day, shows up all the snobs, and gets the hot chick who is inexplicably drawn to Sandler’s average schlub because the script says she is.
Whoops. Wrong clip.
Actually, a whole lot of the film only happens because the script says it does. Like many of Sandler’s films, the screenplay was by Tim Herlihy, who lays out everything simply, obviously, and without ceremony. Characters say exactly what they think, blurt out secrets, and serve copious amounts of exposition left and right that have no contextual basis in what little story there is to see. For example, characters constantly remark about how Sam is a technical genius, but nothing about the character supports that. He’s good at vintage video games because he can easily memorize the patterns the games use, but that in and of itself does not a genius make. Hell, the military division Monaghan’s character represents creates successful anti-alien weapons in the space of about 24 hours after the first attack. That's genius.
So you’re down one guy because the screenplay is weak. What about the director? Sadly, we’re stuck with Chris Columbus, a man whose style can generously be described as competent. Proficient, if we're being generous. Given the outlandish premise and potential for CGI overload, Columbus…just lets things sit there most of the time. It’s almost as if he didn’t want anything getting in the way of the effects, and certainly not something as ridiculous as inventive battle choreography, dynamic frame composition, or even an directorial voice beyond “Hey, here you go.” He comes dangerously close to something resembling genuine fun during a life-size Pac-Man game in New York City, but then decides to keep the momentum going with…a Presidential press conference and an extended scene at a celebration gala.
I said he was competent. Not consistent.
All shall look upon me and despair.
Alright, that’s two lives lost. What about the cast? Well…it’s a mixed bag. Sandler actually downplays his usual schtick here, and it often works. He’s rarely funny or even seems happy to be there, but he realistically carries himself as a man who saw his life’s ambitions vanish years ago (insert metatextual joke here). Kevin James comes across as a cross between Chris Christie and Donald Trump, and his performance carries a rather frightening undertone that clearly wasn’t meant to be there. Ludlow is a screaming, unstable, basement-dwelling mess that only Josh Gad could make work, and he throws himself into the role with such abandon that Ludlow almost seems like a genuinely complex character. Peter Dinklage steals the show, however, as the be-mulleted, Billy Mitchell-style, legend-in-his-own-mind Eddie. Delivering all his lines in a forced/not-forced 70s porno drawl, it’s clear that Dinklage is having the time of his life. When he asks the President for his own island and a 3-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart as conditions for his cooperation, he seems almost charming.
Again, I AM NOT MAKING…oh, fuck it.
A flat script, an uninspired director, and a mostly-game cast could still make a decent film, it’s true. But what truly trips the film up is three-fold. The first issue is the man-cave mentality that’s endemic to most of Sandler’s work. While the film does have a female character who’s shown as a competent military officer, she seems to exist only as a love interest for Sam. Monaghan tries her damnedest to make chemistry out of nothing, but to call Violet and Sam’s romance inert is an insult to noble gases everywhere. When she’s not trying to desperately sell that, though, she’s filling in for Judy Greer as Mother Of Child In Peril In Genre Film. It’s telling that Violet only whips out her most badass moves when she’s trying to save her son from the pixellated invaders. Only two other women have more than one scene in the film, one of which is a criminally underutilized Jane Krakowski as the First Lady, relegated here to Stepford Arm Candy (in her first scene, she’s even making a cake). The other is a woman who never speaks, shows a lot of leg, and is literally handed off as a trophy at the end of the film.
Left to Right: The President, The Chick, The "Hero", The Nerd, The Dinklage.
At least Sandler keeps the gay jokes and ethnic jokes to a minimum this time, and for that he and his crew should be…commended? Is that the right word? There’s an odd scene where Gad’s Ludlow is surveying a battalion of competition-muscled Marines “training” on vintage video game cabinets and shows his appreciation for their efforts with a firm smack on each man’s big, firm glutes. However, the character’s awkwardness and lack of mental stability is firmly established by this point, and it comes off as a supremely scrambled version of a high-five more than anything else. And really, I can’t blame him too much. I’d have done the same. Shortly after that, the film takes a detour to England, and they’re there for less than 30 seconds before a foreskin joke and a “British be people be like…” joke is made. At least Sean Bean is there, playing hilariously against type, to help ameliorate things.
The second big issue Pixels faces is that nobody involved in this film seems to have actually done any research into the video games (much less broader culture) of 1982. It’s established that the aliens are basing their attacks off of the footage they saw from that year, but how could they know about Tetris (released first in 1984), Arkanoid (1986), or Paperboy (1985)? They communicate with Earth through a series of videos featuring 80s celebrities, including Lucky Star-era Madonna, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Max Headroom, again all post-1982 figures. It’s like everything 80s was put in a blender then thrown at the screen. And there’s a huge host of simple, factual errors like the fact that a major plot point revolves around cheat codes for the classic arcade versions of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man…but those games never had cheat codes built into them. It might seem like I’m being pedantic, but given the point’s significance in the story’s arc, it’s something of a genuine issue.
There’s a whole lot about the film that doesn’t make sense, and its internal logic is whatever the superlative of “null and void” is, but the biggest problem with the film is how it perceives “nerds.” Like Sam’s technical genius, his status as a “nerd” is mostly self-professed and rarely demonstrated. In fact, with his casual way of insulting literally everybody he meets, he’s less a middle-aged nerd and more a snot-nosed X-Box troll. All of the stereotypical nerd traits were foisted onto Gad’s character, and they’re turned up to 12 (11 simply wasn’t loud enough for the back rows). Bless his spastic, typecast heart, but he makes it work by only the barest of margins. For a film that ostensibly champions the nerd as the underdog, it doesn’t seem to think very highly of them or their pastimes. There’s a literal slobs-vs-snobs mentality about the work, and it feels wholly artificial, even by the standards of the 80s films it cribs from. After all, “nerds” are actually cool now, even nerds whose biggest claim to fame is a high score on Donkey Kong when they were 13 years old.
A pixel is a two-dimensional item. When it’s in three dimensions, it’s properly called a “voxel”, but to imply that this film has a third dimension is giving it depth it does nothing to earn. So maybe the title is actually right on the money. As a retro-clone of an adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s almost a success. As coherent action/comedy film that’s trying to be thrilling/funny, it’s more of a ridiculously buggy prototype. As a tribute to 80s game and nerd culture, it’s game over with no continues.
FBOTU Score: 3 out of 10 / D