Back in 1982 thirteen year old arcade game genius Sam Brenner lost the championship to his diminutive arch-rival Eddie 'The Fire-Blaster' Plant. More than thirty years later Sam (Adam Sandler), now a humble repairman, still hangs out with his best friend Cooper (Kevin James) who these days just happens to be President of the United States. But when aliens suddenly attack major cities across the world, Sam's old video game skills become the Earth's last best defense. After misinterpreting old Earth video feeds as a declaration of war, the aliens bombard humanity with giant, destructive incarnations of classic video game characters. Aided by comely military scientist Violet (Michelle Monaghan), Brenner assembles his old arcade crew to take on the aliens' ultimate challenge before it is game over for planet Earth.
Among the most reviled films of 2015, Pixels stirred the geek community to a positively medieval level of outrage over a perceived blatant exploitation of Eighties pop culture nostalgia. At the root of the film lies a promising idea. Unfortunately it is squandered on yet another sub-par Adam Sandler comedy albeit one still streets ahead of the near-unwatchable garbage the star has cranked out over the past few years. Unlike Jack and Jill (2011) and That's My Boy (2012), Pixels won't make you want to take a shower. Yet what should have been a slam dunk for Gremlins (1984) writer and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) director Chris Columbus emerged an inexplicable misfire. Inspired by the 2010 short of the same name by French director Patrick Jean, the film awkwardly bolts together two disconnected entities: an effects laden alien invasion film and a goofy Adam Sandler comedy. Only the former has not a single compelling character, engaging scene or situation while the latter has barely any decent gags.
Certain moments suggest Pixels wants to say something meaningful about the perceived decline in both game culture and pop culture in general following the Eighties. At one point the friendly alien Q-Bert winces at the violence in a Call of Duty game. Early on Brenner tells Violet's young son Matty (Matt Lintz) how back in his day video arcades were where kids could socialize in a way you do not get with online gaming. As a result Pixels comes across less an exercise in nostalgia than an excuse for an older generation to posit their pop culture as superior to that of the current generation. Take that, junior. Of course themes like arcade game nostalgia and excessively violent games were handled far more deftly in Disney's vastly-superior and genuinely affecting Wreck-It-Ralph (2012). What is more the team behind Pixels including Columbus, screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling and crucially Sandler himself come across as unsure of what they really want to say. The whole 'nerds save the world' ethos is contrived and rings hollow, merely a front to mask a tired and lazy recycling of past Sandler motifs. Most notably the surly, neurotic 'hero' whom we are meant to find cool because he insults everyone and shreds the heroine's self-esteem by calling her 'snobby' around a hundred times. Michelle Monaghan gamely endures the stock role of hot girl who finds an obnoxious Adam Sandler character irresistible , playing straight woman to countless misfiring quips while the male characters lech over her.
Alongside stock Sandler supporting player Kevin James, Pixels makes a play for the geek crowd by including men of the moment Josh Gad, voice of Olaf in Frozen (2013), and Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. Obviously as the most talented actor in the bunch Dinklage runs rings around his co-stars but, after a great entrance, is sorely underused and disappears abruptly. For the most part Pixels biggest problem is a cast of characters that are uniformly unlikeable, self-serving and frankly kind of gross. Sandler plays a douchebag, James is an inept, illiterate president and Gad, surprisingly, takes the straw as a creepy conspiracy nut who at one point sniffs Violet, slaps marines on the ass and pervs endlessly over a sexy video game heroine. This latter subplot reaches an icky conclusion in the form of teen idol Ashley Benson whose total lack of dialogue speaks volumes about the film's casual sexism. On a more positive note, Columbus' background in solid fantasy blockbusters results in some fairly accomplished video game set-pieces. The giant Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong sequences are quite eye-catching plus the encounter between Pac-Man creator Professor Iwatani (Denis Akiyama) and his malevolent creation plays an amusing riff on a certain classic scene in The War of the Worlds (1953) that has since become a sci-fi staple. Also worth a wry smile or two is the conceit that the aliens issue their ultimatums in the guise of such Eighties pop culture icons as President Ronald Reagan, televangelist Tammy Baker, Madonna and Hall and Oates. Plus we have Matt Frewer reprising his role as Max Headroom. Chances are a production company other than Sandler's could have made something special out of this premise.