My disdain for Adam Sandler has never reached the heights that it has for many others. I tend to stay away from his films unless there is something that hooks me (The Cobbler was seen because of Thomas McCarthy, and before that, I saw Funny People for Judd Apatow). Besides those slightly more serious roles, every film between those two has been unabashedly awful looking, and pandering to a very low-brow audience. But Pixels is a movie which hooked me with its video game premise (and a pretty good short as source material), and ends up being a film that does some of the most pandering in Sandler’s career. With that caveat in place, Pixels actually ends up being an average film (which is apparently the highest praise anyone on the internet could muster) until it’s final act, where it devolves into the usual “throw shit to the wall and see what sticks” motive.
Sandler plays Sam, an employee of a Geek Squad knock-off and also childhood friends with Cooper (Kevin James) – the President of the United States. When aliens invade Earth using Galaga, Cooper calls in Sam when he notices the video game they played as children being weaponized. Cooper enlists the help of Sam, and childhood friend/conspiracy theorist Ludlow (Josh Gad) to help defeat the aliens. The war between the two species is barely explained of its origins (a 1982 video game competition was recorded and sent to space, then taken as an act of war), and why it is set up in a competition is only implied (there is subtlety, then there’s laziness). Plus, it frequently uses nostalgia as a shorthand for setting up plot points, and when it accidentally stumbles on something interesting, it quickly pivots away.
But there are moments of character that are kind of interesting. Take the first instance of Sam having to watch as the military attempt to play a real-life version of Centipede. He loses his mind, as one might get frustrated watching someone who doesn’t usually play video games do really poorly. “Watch for the pattern!” Sam yells in frustration. When he takes the gun and mows down the centipede, the film establishes itself immediately. The “nerds” (yes, they use that term way too much) will be the good guys, and the military will be the useless ones. It isn’t a new twist, but it is at least handled in a fairly efficient manner.
It’s unfortunate that scenes like the Centipede one often violate the rules of the game being used, essentially having the aliens cheating. A notion of cheating is introduced later, but is blamed on the humans which I found laughable because of how frequently the video game characters seemed to cheat. This concept isn’t ever explored, and the character who does cheat just disappears for a bit and comes back exclaiming “I’m all good!” Characters also seem to be on the same wavelength insofar as they never have to really tell the other person what happened when they weren’t around. At one point, Cooper disappears only to show up again knowing the plan which Sam and his gang are about to attempt.
Shorthand is fine in movies, especially when it’s something like Pac-Man, where you don’t really need to explain the rules. These are cultural touchstones that are cemented in most people’s memories because of so much culture being either influenced or replicating them. There’s a neat reversal with Pac-Man where the team actually ends up playing as the ghosts and have to rewire the way they think in order to outmaneuver the yellow icon. However, it’s never explained why this one moment of playing the villain characters of the game occurs. It just happens and we go with it. There’s an interesting concept within that, but is dropped almost immediately.
Pixels burns through ideas like that fairly quickly and tends to do it in such a subtle manner that it’s impossible to believe it to be intentional. The script is extremely bad, and it feels like director Chris Columbus was aware and tried to divert attention from it as much as he could. The entire Peter Dinklage character is the only one that feels like he was ripped out of a Happy Madison production, but everyone else is relatively grounded. Ludlow is eccentric, but he only occasionally feels as dumb as one would expect. His fascination with a video game character is a lame joke to begin with, and the movie takes it to unreasonable lengths, defying as much of the movie’s logic as possible to have some sort of arc for the character.
I wish Pixels was better, but it ruins any momentum it had by the time it hits its final act. Every character gets a quick push from the beginning of their character arc to the end in one brief moment. The only major character that doesn’t is Michelle Monaghan’s who you will notice I barely mention in the review. She’s a love interest and nothing more. Hell, even Monaghan turns in a terrible performance, but I can’t tell how much I can blame that on her or the script. When you can pinpoint the single moment where an arc begins and ends, is it really that harsh for me to put all the blame on the script?
Pixels carries more somber performances from both Kevin James and Adam Sandler. They get their moments of comedy, but honestly, they are rarely even attempting comedy. It is left up to Gad and Dinklage – the latter being extremely annoying and the former having many moments of terrible jokes made only slightly better by Gad’s performance. It was honestly an alright movie for a little while, despite its many script problems out of the gate. But it isn’t until the end when even the performances and premise can’t save it from becoming a rushed and hastily put together film.