From the get-go, I had my doubts about Pixels, but I thought that it still had the potential to be great. Imagine: a movie in the style of ghostbusters where a team of gamers go up against the video game characters they grew up with in an all-out extraterrestrial melee. To me, this sounded like is was going to be a fun time at the movies full of thrills and laughs. I was optimistic that although Adam Sandler and Happy Maddison were involved, he would take his self-professed love of video games and make something truly entertaining. Besides, the original short film it was based on was extremely clever and creative, so I had faith that the film version would be even better. That faith was quite a mistake on my part.
Once again, the premise of the film sounds insanely promising on paper. After NASA sends a space shuttle with examples of Earth's popular culture, a group of unknown alien life forms find it. They take the arcade game footage inside as a declaration of war by Earth, and it's up to a group of retired gamers to challenge them to a series of real-life arcade games for the fate of all mankind. Though this does sound like an entertaining idea for a movie, the creator of the original short made one fatal mistake: handing his project over to Adam Sandler's production company. Pixels is what happens when a great concept is given to Happy Madison. Yeah, it's bad.
Over the years, Happy Madison has done nothing but made unfunny and often cringe-worthy comedies. In the past few years, they cranked out Jack & Jill, Grown Ups 2, Blended, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, and Joe Dirt 2. All of which were filled to capacity with a few common elements: lazy slapstick, awkward product placement, and some of the worst jokes to hit the big screen. They are by far the worst company to handle a film like this, and getting the co-writer of Grown Ups 2 and Bedtime Stories to write the script doesn't help either. Like many other Happy Madison films, Pixels features painfully obvious and unfunny jokes.
In one scene, Adam Sandler's character is bragging to a government official that he got sent to the Oval Office and the official got sent somewhere less important. A simple look would have gotten the joke across, but Sandler's character makes the joke obvious by saying "Look who's more important," and doing a moonwalk routine. The audience would have gotten the joke if you hadn't explained it to them, something that someone like the Joker would understand.
In another scene, Josh Gad's character is showing off a flip book he made of him and a video game character called Lady Lisa (entirely made up by the film) getting married. Adam Sandler's character responds by saying he should sell it at "Barnes and Unstable." Get it? Because the character is mentally unstable? Jokes like that really make me wonder if this film was written by an adult who loves video games or an adult trying to crank out a paycheck. In fact, I often thought to myself: "am I watching a Friedberg/Seltzer movie in disguise?"
Believe it or not though, the jokes were not my biggest problem with this movie. Besides the controversial Q*Bert-urinating-joke that many critics have ripped apart, most of the jokes just fell flat and left me apathetic instead of embarrassed. What really perturbed me about this movie was the lazily written script.
One of the keys to a successful action film is a memorable and likable cast of characters. Here, on the other hand, is what Pixels gives us: Adam Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a snarky repairman whose wife cheated on him but is never actually seen in the movie. Josh Gad plays Ludlow, a perverted, cowardly man-child and conspiracy theorist who lives in his grandmother's basement. Kevin James plays Cooper, a goofball (and distractingly miscast) president who has trouble reading. Michelle Monaghan plays VIolet, a government official and single mother whose husband cheated on her but is never seen. Finally, Peter Dinklage plays Eddie, a sassy criminal who speaks in a weird accent. A better writer may be able to make these characters work, but Tim Herlihy makes them just as flat as I just described them.
There is absolutely nothing about these characters that people are going to remember in the next few years (or months for that matter). They don't do anything except scream and mug for the camera. How is that memorable? In addition to the characters being flat-out bad, the story was just all over the place.
Later on in the movie, it's revealed that Eddie has been using cheat codes his entire life, and intentionally used them to beat the aliens in a round of Pac Man. He shows no remorse, even when the aliens say they will destroy the world out of revenge for cheating. However, in his next scene, he does a total 180 and fights the aliens without cheating. Why did he decide not to cheat? What motivated him? This wasn't the only badly written moment though.
In one of his first scenes, Sam tries to flirt with Violet while she's sobbing in the closet over her divorce and drinking wine. That plot point not only clashes with the silly tone of the rest of the movie, but it essentially amounts to nothing. Violet's husband could have been dead and it would not have made any difference to the plot. Plus, the way it is intercut with an alien battle in Guam is more tonally inconsistent than a Tyler Perry movie.
Pretty much the only positive thing I can say is that the visual effects of the pixels (or voxels, if you want to be scientifically accurate) showed a lot of promise. The effects were colorful, and seeing all of the different video game characters I knew as a kid brought me a bit of nostalgia. I'll even admit that despite the constant interruption by bad jokes, the Centipede and Pac Man scenes were kind of fun to watch. The set pieces in general looked quite nice and had the potential to be exciting. It's just too bad the effects were overshadowed by the awful characters, and jokes.
While Pixels could have been an excellent tribute to arcade nostalgia, it ends up being another serious blunder for Adam Sandler. It certainly does no justice to the many video games I loved growing up either. I could forgive a brief gag of Q*bert urinating if the rest of the movie was at least passable, but this was not the case. Despite having a lot of heart put into its visuals, the rest of the film was just hollow, like a piñata with no candy inside.