Pixels is not a very good movie, but it’s one that could have been better had it come out in a different time, one when Chris Columbus still lived in the upper echelon of family movie filmmakers and Adam Sandler hadn’t yet become a cynical parody of himself. That’s a harsh place to start a review of a whimsical movie about ‘80s arcade game characters coming to life as malevolent space aliens attack Earth, but let’s be honest with ourselves here. It is nearly impossible to remove Pixels from the context that situates it as merely the latest in a series of endless nostalgia trips for Sandler and associated comedians in his camp. That context colors Pixels as what it is: a flagrant cash-in on nostalgia the film doesn’t even seem to fully grasp at any point and another lazy grab for continued funding made by a creative corps that’s turned such a thing into a cottage industry.
At points, Pixels invokes Seth Gordon’s luminous 2008 documentary about competing Donkey Kong gamers, The King of Kong. Given that Gordon is listed among the film’s many producers, this makes sense on a surface level. The genial, Steve Wiebe-esque everyman is Brenner (Sandler), who is neither of those things; he’s a “Geek Squad” home installation technician who laments the simpler, more fulfilling life he left behind. (You could write a book on this motif across Sandler’s recent films: the guy who decided that he and the whole world peaked in the ‘80s.) As a kid, Brenner was an arcade world champion, respected by all. His clique with his best friend Cooper (Kevin James) and their even geekier compatriot Ludlow (Josh Gad) held sway over the local arcade, until Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) bested Brenner in a tie-breaking game of Donkey Kong, leading Brenner into the service industry and Eddie into several prison sentences.
Columbus immerses Pixels in some of the comic collective’s favorite themes: nostalgia, deliberately bygone pop cultural references, man-children making good, women as trophies. That’s not some kind of arch commentary on the misogyny of gaming culture, for the record — at one point, a woman is literally made into a trophy. And because in this scenario Cooper grew up to be the President of the United States, and Ludlow a conspiracy theorist ready to believe in space aliens, the film rushes through the necessary stuff about a deep space probe causing the aliens to mistake old game footage for a declaration of war so that it can rush to the parts where Sandler and company get to re-enact old video games, in between a series of scenes which flail wildly as the result of two key misassumptions:
1. That Sandler’s chemistry with the eternally underused Michelle Monaghan crackles off the screen, and;
2. That because video games are related to what’s happening onscreen, everyone in the audience must only need to be reminded of things they have enjoyed in other aspects of life to be entertained.
Let’s table that first one, because Sandler being cast opposite a charming actress who gets the privilege of making one of his shrill man-boys look like a desirable human being is now as perennial as the melting of the snow and the coming of flowers. Columbus stages the film’s many CG-heavy setpieces with an enjoyable visual flair, at least; because destruction comes in comical, pixelated form as buildings and people alike decompose, the film is able to get away with older-skewing jokes like a Smurf being decapitated with a light cannon, all in the name of lighthearted fun. The pixels collapse in endless piles, and it’s a neat bit of visual trickery precluding the upcoming Minecraft movie that actually feels like a loving and faithful tribute to the source material.
The film’s comic sensibility is largely on-the-fly, as the jokes mostly come between prolonged setpieces that get the maximum value out of the many branded properties on display. The jokes are what you’d expect: run-on banter that mostly makes those involved look like jerks, ganging up on the weirder/nerdier guys in the room (Sandler and James are nerds and all, but they’re the cool nerds), and random cameos that sometimes appear to not even have been filmed on set. Sandler and Monaghan march toward her inevitable romantic feelings, while Gad and Dinklage are the film’s MVPs, both getting decent laughs from afterthought characters.
What’s most grating about Pixels from its first moments is how it aims to profit handsomely from the public’s fond memories of analog characters and simpler times, while updating them into a garish modern model that retains none of the simplistic charm of the originals. It offers little more than the satisfaction of a major movie recognizing something that once existed and the pleasure of having that mutual recognition affirmed. Creative minds will likely wander throughout the film to other games and characters and ways in which even the ones already on display might have been better used.
But lest we assess the film that could have existed instead of the one that does, let’s just conclude with this: Pixels operates on the Big Bang Theory model of geek comedy, the one that pretends to not be secretly thumbing its nose at the whole thing while benefitting handsomely from it. It’s reasonably well-made, and it’s not without its moments of charm and levity. But in a film so utterly satisfied at every turn with its nonexistent hip innovation, those pleasures feel almost incidental.