Sam Brenner and Will Cooper (played as adults by Adam Sandler and Kevin James) love playing the latest video games of 1982. When the arcade opens in their town, they spend all their time and quarters there. Sam is especially adept at seeing the patterns of games like Pac-Man, Centipede and Galaga. Sam is so good he almost wins a nationwide video game contest but comes in second to Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (played as an adult by Peter Dinklage), a cocky blowhard who considers himself a rock star. Video of that tournament was included in a rocket that is launched into space. Sam has plans to attend MIT but things don’t go exactly as he hopes and he winds up installing home audio and video systems, including one at the home of Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a recently divorced mother of a pre-teen boy named Matty (Matthew Lintz). After a tender moment where Violet expresses her fear and anger about the divorce, Sam manages to ruin the mood by moving in for a kiss and the pair argues about her being a snob. Sam gets a call from Will, now President of the United States, Cooper to come to the White House immediately. Violet also gets a call to come into work and they are both headed to the same place. Violet is Lt. Col. Van Patten and works for PARPA. They are both called to the White House because our naval base at Guam has been attacked…by Galaga. No one can explain why the aliens look like the video game characters but Sam recognizes the patterns of their attacks as being from the 1982 version of the game. No one believes him and he’s forced to leave the meeting. Driving home, he finds Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) in the back of his work van. Lamonsoff, another participant in the 1982 tournament, says he knows about the attack and believes aliens have found the tape of the video game tournament along with other cultural and current event video also included and misinterpreted it as an act of war. The aliens broadcast a message using imagery from the tape to announce the location of the next attack and inform us that we are trailing one to nothing (having lost the first Galaga battle on Guam) and if we lose three contests, also based on video games, the Earth will be destroyed. President Cooper puts Sam and Ludlow on a team to teach Navy Seals how to combat the aliens using old style video game tactics with new light pulse weapons designed by Violet. He also gets Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant out of prison (he didn’t do well later in life either) to join the others in combating the alien invasion.
For an Adam Sandler movie, “Pixels” isn’t that bad. That’s not to say it’s a great film but it isn’t as insulting as “That’s My Boy” or “Jack & Jill.” I’ll admit, I kind of liked “Jack & Jill” and perhaps that could be used in a hearing to confine me to a mental hospital; but I still found a little enjoyment out of the film while still being able to see it was a bad movie. “Pixels” is Sandler making a movie his kids, and yours, can see while giving the adults old enough to remember video arcades something to look back on fondly while Donkey Kong, Paperboy and Frogger try to kill us all. It’s kind of a mixed message that works to some degree.
First, allow me to dig into the “thinking too much about the plot” file. The aliens see video games from 1982 and form their attacks based on those games. Wouldn’t that give humans a 30-plus year advantage? These must be stupid aliens that stumbled into faster than light travel strictly by accident. They don’t see any need to improve upon or advance the technology to ensure their victory? They don’t understand the concept of time or light years or anything else explained by Einstein a century ago? This is an alien society that is extraordinarily backward.
As we close that file, let’s open the “inappropriate romance” file and discuss the guaranteed relationship between Sam and Violet. While I give Sandler’s screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling credit for making the character of Violet intelligent with an important and powerful job, we first meet her as a kind of pitiful person sitting in her walk-in closet crying and drinking wine from a sippy cup. Of course, the reason for her state is being dumped by her husband for a 19-year old Pilates instructor which makes her feel old and unloved. While I understand her fear and doubt, there should have been a better way to introduce her. Naturally, Sandler’s character comes in and saves the day, just like he does for the rest of the movie. By the end, Sam and Violet begin a relationship as we all know they will. Why this always seems to be necessary in this type of light entertainment is a bit of a mystery to me. And while there’s only nine years age difference between Sandler and Monaghan, she appears to be far younger than he which amplifies the idea that a man is only attracted to a woman significantly younger than him. It’s the kind of trope that needs to be stamped out of movies.
The story of “Pixels” is dumb just like the rest of the film. It seems highly unlikely a president of the US would maintain a relationship with his old arcade buddy right on through his term in office. It’s also doubtful that same person could drive his van up to the White House for a visit. Of course, for the movie to work, it’s best not to worry too much about the details and just let the silliness wash over you. It’s that silliness that often works in delivering some of the laughs.
Brian Cox plays one of President Cooper’s top military advisors. He’s clueless about video games and wants to blame everything on Iran. Cox plays the role as a no-nonsense military man who has little patience with President Cooper’s old arcade buddy. While brief, the interactions between Sandler and Cox are rife with insults and rude nicknames. Cox’s character appears to be set up as a kind of traitor at one point in the film but that foreshadowing never gets built upon. Josh Gad’s character is a conspiracy theorist that hasn’t grown up much since his time in the arcades. He still harbors a love for a game character and has even drawn a flip book showing them getting married (yes, it’s as weird as it sounds) and doesn’t understand the concept of personal space. Gad appears to have been given carte blanche with his portrayal as I doubt anyone could have written so much oddity into one character. The great Peter Dinklage must have been paid an enormous amount to appear in the film as he is the most obnoxious and unlikable character in the movie (which is saying something for an Adam Sandler film). Dinklage, wearing a mullet wig and sporting enough attitude for 20 people, is also a character largely unchanged from his earlier self. While his surroundings are far less agreeable than before, The Fire Blaster still refers to himself in the third person and insults everyone around him. He makes outrageous demands in exchange for his help, some of which he receives, and turns out to not be as good a gamer as he wants everyone to believe. The role is an enormous waste of Dinklage’s talent and ability. Come to think of it, that applies to just about everyone in the film.
“Pixels” is rated PG-13 for suggestive comments and some language. Most of the suggestive comments come from The Fire Blaster, especially when he tells President Cooper he wants to spend an evening in the Lincoln Bedroom with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in exchange for his help. There may be a few more odd or weirdly inappropriate comments but they are few and far between. Foul language is scattered and mild.
For a big part of his performance, Adam Sandler appears bored. Early on that’s likely because his character isn’t living up to his potential; but later I’m not sure what the reason might be. Maybe Sandler wasn’t that crazy about the project from the beginning and was just doing it for a paycheck. Perhaps he didn’t get along with director Chris Columbus. Maybe he’d rather be doing his own thing like he’s begun shooting for Netflix. Whatever the reason, Sandler doesn’t appear all that interested in being in the movie. Fortunately, the rest of the cast showed up and put some actual energy into their performances. It may be a silly movie about silly video games but “Pixels” actually manages to deliver some laughs and a fair amount of nostalgia. It isn’t the worst way to spend your time at the movies. It also isn’t the best.