We’ve suspected that Pixels would be an almighty disaster ever since we saw the first trailer, but it’s actually worse than we feared. Director Chris Columbus is clearly trying to create another great fantasy adventure, but he’s hamstrung by a short-sighted script. And Adam Sandler’s painful performance.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Sandler, along with Kevin James, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, play four gamers who were the best in the world during the eighties. A videotape of their performance is sent into space as part of a time capsule. And 30 years later, aliens misinterpret the tape and invade our planet disguised as classic video game characters like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede. The “Arcaders” are then tasked with saving the world.
At the very least, most people can see the potential fun in that premise. The slight possibility of something along the lines of Ghostbusters. And if Adam Sandler from 1995 was the star, maybe it could have worked. But this is 2015 Sandler, and he has the opposite effect on the movie. His apathy towards everything going on, both on camera and beyond, sucks all emotion out of the film—leaving the script by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling to stand on its own. Which isn’t a good thing. At all.
Being a comedy along with an adventure film, Pixels would at least be forgivable if it made you laugh. It doesn’t. Joke after joke plays to dead silence, with only the occasional laugh coming out of pure awkwardness. “What were you going to do with this chloroform?” is one not-so-hilarious example. An ongoing bit with Dinklage’s character wanting to have a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart is another cringe-inducing thread.
The screenplay does the additional disservice of barely contextualizing this seemingly important, terrifying global event. Everything is so laser-focused on the “humor” and these characters (one of whom is the President of the United States, played by James...you read that right) that we’re left scratching our heads at how the rest of the world feels about these three men defending our planet. Eventually, the film deals with their international celebrity, but it’s too little, too late. Without any meaningful perspective, there aren’t any stakes to bolster the story.
Take a movie with similar themes, like Independence Day. It uses its characters as a conduit for a larger story, weaving them in and out of a larger, scary narrative. In Pixels the characters are the story. Yes there are video game aliens invading, but showing that almost exclusively through their eyes shrinks everything down. You never feel like the world is literally at stake, and if you don’t think something bad will happen if the heroes lose—in fact, you don’t care either way. Scenes are set all over the world but, somehow, they fail to give the story any sense of scope.
Maybe that’s because none of the characters are actual characters. Here each one is nothing more than a stereotype. Sandler is the lovable loser, Gad is the paranoid horny guy, Dinklage is the horny bad guy, James is the fat guy and Michelle Monaghan is the capable love interest. That’s pretty much it. So as they travel around the world, shoot down some bad guys or try to fall in love, they’re basically nothing more than blank slates begrudgingly moving us towards a disappointing climax.
Worse yet, only Gad and Dinklage seem to be enjoying themselves on screen. Each of their performances are so over the top, they border on parody—which is the exact kind of energy the film generally lacks. Dinkalge, in particular, is channeling King of Kong star and video game champion Billy Mitchell, and you want way more of his madness. Unfortunately for both actors, they constantly share the screen with charisma-vacuum Sandler, and their kooky performances are left looking awkward and out of place by comparison. James and Monaghan almost aren’t worth mentioning, because each is fine in their role, but they don’t really add much. Which, in an odd way, works better opposite Sandler. When your two best performances suffer because they spark no chemistry with your bland lead, that’s not a good thing.
Yet despite all of that, there are a few things desperately trying to make Pixels good. The digital effects, for one. Columbus and his team did an awesome job coming up with an interesting visual way to represent these aliens, to justify the film’s title. They’re made of pixels—and whenever they touch something, it breaks down into pixels. Plus, that new visual language blends well with the movie’s respect and love for the history of video games. We see that through several fun cameos, easter eggs and production design elements such as the film’s final set. The video game IQ of Pixels manages to elicit smiles that the rest of the movie gropes for in vain.
The film’s soundtrack is also decent, featuring a who’s who of 70s and early 80s pop and rock hits sprinkled throughout. Beyond that, the film’s score by the usually reliable Henry Jackman has a similar effect to Sandler. It adds nothing. The action set pieces, isolated from everything, are visually impressive and even thrilling for brief moments. But without a good, memorable score to accompany them, they’re just images on the screen. More so, there were moments in the movie where the characters are talking and I was so bored, I consciously shifted focus to listen for the music, only to hear silence.
In the end though, even if the story was bad, music uneventful and characters underwritten, a charismatic lead might have been enough to save the day. Hell, I’d even have been happy if Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore or The Waterboy was the star of this movie. Instead it’s plain old Adam Sandler, slogging through long dialogue sequences, negating any brief goodwill the film could have just stumbled into. This movie feels as though Sandler walked on set straight from his trailer, read his lines off a cue-card, then went back to sleep. At every turn, his indifference to the material is palpable. When Kevin James as the President of the United States is a welcome respite, you know a film is in trouble. And Pixels is so bad, it’s actually troubling.