Opening today at a multiplex near all of us:
PIXELS (Dir. Chris Columbus, 2015)
So, PIXELS, the latest in a long line of crass comedies from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, is a typically lame offering, but it really doesn't suck as much as the majority of critics are saying.
I mean, it’s currently holds an awful 12% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. C’mon! It deserves at least 30-something percent. *
PIXELS scores a few points by trying a little harder than Sandler’s largely crappy output of late (the GROWN UP series, THAT’S MY BOY, BLENDED, etc.) and it has a pretty promising premise – aliens attack earth in the form of ‘80s video games – which does at times add up into some genuinely enjoyable dumb fun.
There may be dragging stretches between those instances of amusement, and tons of lame jokes litter the landscape along with the pixilated carnage, but as a throwaway summer popcorn picture it’s actually almost passable.
Sandler, Josh Gad, and Peter Dinklage play former ‘80s arcade champions, who we meet as kids played by the well cast Anthony Ippolito, Jacob Shinder and Andrew Bambridge, in an opening flashback set in 1982. We also meet Jared Riley as the kid version of Kevin James’ character, who’s not a great gamer but is able to score a Chewbacca mask from the Claw Game.
In the intervening years, Sandler’s Sam Brenner grows up to be a schlubby Geek Squad-style media center installation guy, while his best friend, James’ Will Cooper (or “Chewie” to his friends) has gone on to be elected President of the United States.
When Austrialia gets invaded by an alien force resembling the game Galaga™, James recruits Sandler to use his gaming skills, which involve recognizing patterns, to help the army defeat the 8-bit menace. Gad, now a conspiracy theory buff, and a mulleted Dinklage, in prison for criminal hacking, are also called upon and before long they’re all wearing uniforms identified as “Arcaders.”
Michelle Monaghan as Lt. Colonel Violet van Patten, Sandler’s obvious love interest from the get go, is skeptical of the crew until they take down Centipede® in a battle in London’s Hyde Park.
The big showpiece is the showdown with Pac-Man™ in New York City. The Arcaders take on the role of the ghosts via brightly colored cars with their names (Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde) on their license plates. Pac-Man is his old yellow, recognizable self, albeit ginormous, who shocks Sandler and his creator, Denis Akiyama as Toru Iwatani (the real Iwatani has a cameo as a repairman), by being “a bad guy.”
PIXELS takes the aliens recreating our old pop culture premise from GALAXY QUEST mixes it with the satirical yet nostalgic take on arcade classics from the Reagan era of WRECK-IT RALPH, and then wraps it all up in GHOST BUSTERS packing of having lovable, schlubby underdogs overcoming supernatural odds to save the world from a dangerously silly threat. Oh, and there’s an added splash of THE KING OF KONG in there too – the posturing of Dinklage’s Donkey Kong champion more than a little resembles the arrogant Billy Mitchell in that compelling gaming doc.
It should also be mentioned that there’s an episode of Futurama, “Raiders of the Lost Arcade,” that shares the same premise, but the real inspiration, which is credited, is the French animated short “Pixels.” Nearly every visual gag in the short is redone in the movie – watch it here.
Scripted by longtime Sandler screenwriting pal Tim Herlihy, PIXELS has a decently dopey tone to it. It doesn’t care whether its jokes land, or its plot mechanics are transparent, it just wants to fuck around on its huge playset with all the props and memories of the overgrown man-children in its audience.
Unfortunately there are so many missed opportunities with this material that it’s a shame that like somebody like the retro-meta-mastermind team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the 21 JUMP STREET movies, THE LEGO MOVIE) wasn’t hired to touch up the screenplay.
Like I said before, it’s pretty close to crappy (which could be said also of its cluttered cinematography), but not as interminable, soul crushing, or as painful as many critics are saying. It’s a mediocre attempt at a crowd pleaser that actually has some amusing moments. It just fits better into the “Sandler is so over” narrative that so many pop culture pundits have been selling lately to paint it as a big, stinky dud.
I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone who’s not a big Sandler fan, or somebody who doesn’t say upfront that they like big, stupid movies, but if I were using a star rating system I’d give it two stars out of five for “doesn’t completely suck” (the other stars for the record: 1 star = “sucks,” 3 stars = “good,” 4 stars = “almost awesome,” and 5 stars = of course, “awesome”).
Oh, and I enjoyed the Q-Bert, and Max Headroom cameos too.
* The Rotten Tomatoes rating of 12% was what it was at when I originally wrote this review. It's now at 20%, so it's slowly inching it's way up as more reviews are posted. Maybe it'll make 30-something % yet.