Wiser critics than I have counseled to never hate a movie. It can be hard at times, but I think that they’re right, at least in that hating is a waste of emotional energy better spent on loving better movies. But even if you don’t hate Pixels, rest assured: Pixels hates you.
The original short film by Patrick Jean is charming and whimsical, and shows a real love of the blocky aesthetic of classic video games. It shows off the virtuosity of the filmmakers at One More Production as they insert the pixelated attackers into handheld footage of New York, and zap various features of the cityscape into multicolored blocks. The big-budget, feature-length version takes all of this as more grist for Adam Sandler’s mill.
Again we’ve got the attack by classic video game characters, but now there’s a back-story: they’re coming because they misinterpreted some video game footage from 1982 included in a cultural space capsule as a declaration of war. Because, as usual, a civilization that has weaponry and interstellar travel technology like this is clearly as stupid as the audience has to be to find this funny. Anyway, they’re challenging the Earth to a best three-of-five video game tournament, though we don’t get serious about fighting back until both Guam and the Taj Mahal have been pixelated and the aliens have taken two Earthlings as “trophies”.
In order to fight back, a DARPA researcher (Michelle Monaghan) comes up with light guns that can hurt the attackers, but the Navy SEALS aren’t very effective at using them. Luckily president Will Cooper (Kevin James. I know…) grew up hanging out in arcades with the very same guys who recorded the footage at the 1982 video game world championships that started this whole mess in the first place. Sam Brenner (Sandler) came in second to douchebag Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), and now he’s installing audiovisual gear for a living while Eddie’s in jail. And there’s also Ludlow Lamonsoff “The Wonder Kid” (Josh Gad), a conspiracy theorist who lives in his grandmother’s basement and nurses a creepy childhood obsession with the protagonist of a game created for the movie. Yes, the character setup really is that messy, and mostly serves as an excuse to get this sector of Sandler’s crew into the central roles.
The script was written by Sandler regulars Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, and it’s every bit as stupid and lazy as we’ve come to expect. There’s no actual humor here; just a mass of stereotypes and pop culture references, the latter mostly heavy on the ’80s and video games but hardly limited to them either. These are people who think the biggest problem with the Hollywood cliché of the trophy wife is that she isn’t literally awarded as a prize.
Literally nothing in the story makes sense. The attackers are the bad guys in most of the games, but then they’re Pac-Man while Sandler and company play the ghosts in tricked-out Mini Coopers — side note: this is not the segment that takes place in London — because, well no reason the story gives a damn about. There’s a big presidential soirée in the team’s honor, but it’s on the night before the tiebreaker match when the tension should be nearing its peak. There’s a twist involving “cheat codes” with no concern about how they’re supposed to work, for a game that didn’t even have such things, just because “hey, cheat codes are a thing gamer nerds talk about, right?” And the only thing more racist than the selfie-obsessed Indian guy is the audience’s squealing “that’s really him!” when Pac-Man creator Iwatani Tōru shows up, except it’s really Denis Akiyama with a really bad accent. But all Japanese guys are basically interchangeable, right?
And yet none of these very basic appeals to sensible story structure — or even simple human decency — matter to Pixels. As far as Sandler and company are concerned, you’ll eat this up and ask for more. Anyone outside Sandler’s own fratboy circle is a target for them to point and laugh at. And in particular they think the “nerds” that serve as the apparent target audience are so starved for attention that just referencing a bunch of old games will be enough to satisfy them. The depressing thing is, they’re probably right enough to make millions off of this lazy, pandering swill; the people who actually like these games are a tiny minority that Sandler is free to insult and dismiss along with all the others he abuses, and there’s plenty audience left that’s dumb enough to go along for the ride.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.