Action Comedy

'Pixels' Film Review: Don't hate the player, hate the game

July 23, 2015Ben MK

Whether or not you subscribe to the notion of extraterrestrial life, you have to admit that it makes for some interesting movies. Take, for example, 1984's The Last Starfighter. In it, a teenager encounters a video game that ends up being his ticket to another quadrant of the galaxy, leading him on a journey to becoming an intergalactic hero. Well, now it's 31 years later, and the aliens have returned. And in Pixels, they're here to bite us in the ass.

Ok, so any connection between Pixels and The Last Starfighter may just be wishful thinking. The truth is, Pixels is based on the 2010 short film by French filmmaker Patrick Jean, in which 8-bit arcade games like Space Invaders, Tetris and Frogger come to life and attack New York City. In the movie version, however, we have an unlikely savior, and his name is Adam Sandler.

Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a middle-aged loser and a home theater technician who used to be a hot-shot arcade prodigy. That is, until the day he lost a game of Donkey Kong — and the title of 1982 World Arcade Champion — to his arch nemesis, Eddie "the Fire Blaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage). But when aliens begin sending over-sized versions of our most beloved 8-bit video game characters to devour Earth's largest cities, Sam suddenly finds his gaming skills in high demand again.

Called into action by his childhood pal, President of the United States Will Cooper (Kevin James), Sam must use his lightning-fast reflexes to one-up the aliens at deadly, larger-than-life-sized recreations of Centipede, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Otherwise, humanity is doomed. Luckily, he'll have a little help from Eddie, conspiracy-nut Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), who's created an arsenal of weapons that can be used to take down our otherworldly attackers.

Story-wise, Pixels is basically a letdown. But honestly, did you really expect anything different from a feature-length adaptation of a 2-minute short? To their credit, director Chris Columbus and screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling try their best to expand on Jean's original concept, but ultimately very little material is added to flesh out the alien invasion storyline. And what has been added — namely, a cookie-cutter romantic subplot between Sam and Violet — feels like it's been matter-of-factly shoehorned in simply to fill screen time.

Acting-wise, Pixels manages to fare a hair better. Although Sandler is undoubtedly the weakest link in the cast, more or less sleepwalking his way through the film's 105-minute running time, the rest of the actors actually seem to be giving it a good college try; especially Gad and Dinklage, who together are responsible for about 95% of the laughs in the movie. Then there are the appearances by more seasoned actors like Brian Cox and Sean Bean (sorry folks, no Steve Buscemi), who have very small roles, but nonetheless help to elevate the film slightly above the low waterline of your typical Happy Madison production.

Not that the results are particularly funny or charming. In fact, for a film whose bright and colorful aesthetic seems tailor-made to attract the younger demographic, the humor in Pixels can be surprisingly crude and sexist at times. Let that be a warning to all you parents out there. Unless you want to explain to your little ones what a three-way is, and why Peter Dinklage's character wants so desperately to have one with Martha Stewart and Serena Williams, it's probably best to keep them away from this one.

Besides, it's not as if the kiddies are going to pick up on half the pop culture references the film throws at them anyway. Keeping with the tradition of most of Sandler's movies, what Pixels often amounts to is an exercise in nostalgia; meaning if you haven't lived it, chances are you aren't going to get as much mileage out of the movie as those who have. Otherwise, if you do remember the '80s, then you'll probably get a decent kick out of seeing Pac-Man chomp his way through the streets of New York, or in seeing the aliens communicate with us via '80s icons like Ricardo Montalban, Hall & Oates, and even Ronald Reagan.

In the end, Pixels may not be as horrible as some of Adam Sandler's recent output, but on the other hand, it doesn't fully capitalize on its crazy premise either. I mean, just think of what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative duo behind The Lego Movie, could have done with the concept. Instead, what we get is a threadbare story with idiotic humor, all tied together by some admittedly shiny visual effects. But take away its saving grace — the ability to evoke nostalgia — and what we're left with is a movie where Adam Sandler saves the world. Sorry, but there's not much appeal in that.

Pixels releases July 24th, 2015 from Sony Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 45 Mins.

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