Film Review – Pixels
Nerd culture has come a long way from its humble roots. What was once considered niche is now mainstream; with all facets of popular culture making its way into the public consciousness. Interestingly enough, if this were twenty some odd years ago, Adam Sandler would have made it a target of his comedy. But with Pixels (2015), he would have us believe that he is one of the nerds. What’s nice about his turn here – as opposed to what he’s done in the past decade – is actually put some effort into his work. Sandler appears to have interest in the material, and isn’t just sleepwalking his way to another paycheck. Maybe that’s an indicator of his career as of late, where active involvement can be worthy of merit.
The film (directed by Chris Columbus, written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, based on Patrick Jean’s short film) shamelessly exploits two factors: video games and nostalgia for the ‘80s. Video games are bigger than ever, and a longing for the past is injected to try and connect with people that lived through that era. I wonder if many young people remember video games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or Caterpillar. It’s as though the filmmakers are trying to show how these arcade games are better than what’s coming out today. I don’t know if this will win over new fans or just satisfy those that were fans to begin with.
Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a regular guy who – as a kid – was one of the best arcade gamers in the country. After a stunning loss to his rival Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) in the national championships, Sam hid within himself, eventually becoming a home theater installer. At the same time, NASA launched a time capsule into space containing pictures and video footage of life on Earth as a means of establishing communication. Oddly, the items chosen included video games, footage from old TV shows, and interviews from celebrities like Madonna. Really, is that all that humanity has to offer?
Anyway, the time capsule was misinterpreted by alien life forms as a declaration of war. As a result, they’ve come to invade Earth as pixelized versions of video game characters…because why not? Hoping to stop the invaders from accomplishing their goal, President Will Cooper – played by Kevin James (yes, that Kevin James) calls upon Sam’s knowledge of arcade games to fight against the enemy. Along the way, they recruit their friend Ludlow (Josh Gad), military specialist Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), and make amends with Eddie Plant to join the cause.
This idea is ridiculous beyond all comprehension. Seeing aliens adopt the form of Q*bert, Super Mario, and Donkey Kong makes no sense whatsoever. There would be no way the military would put the safety of the entire country in the hands of aging gamers who are way past their prime. And Kevin James as president, who came up with that? Any type of believability should be thrown right out of the window. However, if we can move around all the nonsense (if that’s at all possible), it was interesting to see these video game characters come to life in the real world. The special effects incorporate an aesthetic where objects look pixilated, and when buildings or property are destroyed, they become pixilated as well. In one of the better scenes, Sam and the rest of the team jump in color-specific cars to chase down Pac-Man. Looking from above, the set piece cleverly resembles the game where the cars represent the ghosts, and the arena is placed within the streets of New York City. If you’ve played the game, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The comedy was hit or miss for the most part. Adam Sandler and Kevin James play their respective roles well enough, their chemistry coming from the fact that they’re friends in real life. Unfortunately, the romantic/comedic interplay between Sandler and Monaghan’s characters feels forced (they meet when Sam installs Violet’s TV) and never gels with any significance. The first thing Sam mentions when he meets Violet is how hot she is (classy). But it’s Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage who make the biggest impressions. Gad’s Ludlow is a conspiracy theorist with the social skills of a person who never got through puberty. Dinklage chews scenery as the swaggering Eddie Plant. Rocking an epic mullet with no consideration for proper taste, Eddie wears his egotism and perverse tendencies on his sleeve with pride. While not a laugh riot by any means, there were times I found myself chuckling at some of the punch lines, mostly when they came from Gad and Dinklage’s directions.
Pixels belongs in that weird place right in the middle of good and bad, where I don’t regret seeing it but I probably wouldn’t want to watch it ever again. To its credit, everyone looked like they were fully committed to the absurd nature of the premise, and dove in without any hesitation. Everyone involved (including the audience) deserves a participation award.