Video game adaptations have always been Hollywood kryptonite, but Pixels isn’t quite a video game adaptation – it’s a sci-fi homage to the classic ’80s arcade games that gobbled all your hard earned quarters without remorse. And by “sci-fi homage,” I mean that filmmaker Patrick Jean created a nifty little short about pixels taking over New York City, team Happy Madison gave it a feature-film treatment, and this steaming pile of nostalgia porn is the result. It’s baffling how a movie built on virtual entertainment could have the absolute life sucked out of it – but not even the likes of Q*Bert, Donkey Kong or Pac-Man can find an extra life for Pixels, no matter how hard they try.
In this wacky alternate universe, aliens discover a taped recording of the first video game tournament held on Earth and they take it as an intergalactic challenge. The extraterrestrial race accepts Earth’s “declaration of war” and sends an army of pixelated game characters to face off against its human competitors. But since the video was recorded and launched back in the ’80s, Earth finds itself being attacked by “outdated” arcade mainstays.
The first game, a full Galaga attack, goes unconfirmed by all but one man – Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler). President Cooper (Kevin James) doesn’t hesitate to call upon his ex-almost-tournament-champion friend, Brenner, to battle the games he once mastered as a child, because Earth’s only hope is beating the aliens in three different challenges (effectively knocking down their three lives). Win the games, save the world and gain a newfound respect for gamers – all in a day’s work for Brenner and his team of Arcaders.
Yes. Sandler, James, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage star as alien-fighting gamer types who are humbly deemed “Arcaders.” I suppose there’s a whole pro-nerd message that’s attempted here, but it’s an egregiously lazy attempt at confidence-boosting that’s less inspired than the last few Sonic iterations.
Sandler doesn’t brush his teeth before going into public, Gad lives with his grandmother while unhealthily obsessing over a fake ninja hottie, and Dinklage still thinks the word “tubular” is cool – BECAUSE NERDS ARE FUNNY. It’s a horridly shallow attempt at character development that highlights cultural stigmas (like social ineptitude) for a cheap laugh, conveyed by a cast of characters who are flatter than Paper Mario.
The problem is, Pixels isn’t just unfunny, it’s awkwardly unfunny. Like, awkwardly unfunny to the point where you understand a joke is being attempted, yet not a single person in the theater is laughing. And this happens over, and over, and over again. Right away we’re treated to Sandler’s knockoff Geek Squad job and his romantic introduction to Michelle Monaghan’s character, Violet, along with a string of horrendously insincere attempts at on-screen compassion.
Monaghan and Sandler go together like oil and water, and their early get-to-know-each-other scenes are so cringe-worthy that you’ll find yourself wincing in emotional pain – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Then Dinklage’s retro accent tears scenes to shreds, obvious gaming plot points are haplessly turned into weightless metaphors about life, and most other characters beg audiences for a sympathetic laugh. In the words of Q*Bert, [insert curse bubble here].
It’s a shame, because brilliant VFX work falls by the wayside in Pixels. Earth’s massive struggle against its digital foes features some stunning moments of virtual realism, as blocky attackers pop vibrantly off the screen like their arcade counterparts once did. We’re treated to an ocular smorgasbord of varying colors, differentiated lackeys and gargantuan gaming icons, all of which are a certifiably exciting blast from the past. Give Chris Columbus credit, because no other director can say they orchestrated a full-scale Donkey Kong reenactment with human players – a glimpse into the enjoyably large-scale version of Nick Arcade that Pixels COULD have been. But, alas, not even a cameo by Max Headroom could save this geek-culture-overdose from being a predictably unfunny shoot-em-up.
It’s Sandler’s Brenner who keeps stressing the overarching theme of patterns throughout his save-the-world competition. We’re supposed to learn (through video games) that pattern memorization can beat the monotony of repeating problems (Pac-Man), but sometimes it’s best to follow only our instincts (The Last Of Us). We’re supposed to feel good that Brenner learns to think outside the box and accept a fate that’s larger than installing home theaters, yet it’s hard to ignore that Pixels suffers from the very same caged thinking.
The movie finds itself acting out patters in each scene, whether it’s an annoying cry for attention from James’ character at an inopportune moment, or a snide comment from “The Fireblaster” (Dinklage’s character). Pixels is an overly formulaic bore that doesn’t heed its own advice or muster anything more than a shallow story about “losers” who become the heroes. Too bad more time is spent mocking said losers than seeking out societal retribution.
It pains me to see Columbus’ name attached to Pixels, because it’s just another mess of mainstream marketability that relies on brand recognition, not cinematic triumph. The problem is, you can’t even say Pixels lacks creativity – New York City becomes a giant Pac-Man level for Zelda’s sake! But with actors who act like emotionless corpses (sans Dinklage’s too-cool psychosis), hole-ridden storytelling (an alien race that’s never really discussed) and some seriously awkward arm-rubbing (honestly, Sandler, WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT CLOSET SCENE?), it’ll take more than a three-way cameo and a mullet-rocking Peter Dinklage to walk away with the high score. Or, hell, ANY score at all.
The comedic parts of Pixels must have been experiencing a technical glitch, because I can count the amount of times I laughed on one hand (most of which were thanks to the fake Professor Iwatani).