Pixels REVIEW: Nostalgia, not Sandler, powers the fun in “Pixels”

It may be Adam Sandler’s character saving the world from video game-inspired aliens in Pixels, but make no mistake: it’s the video game aliens themselves, and all the 80’s flavored nostalgia that comes with them, that save this movie from being yet another dreck of a Sandler vehicle. It’s fun in spots thanks to director Chris Columbus’s sure hand at crafting energetic set pieces, but when all those fan-favorite pixelated baddies aren’t on screen being blasted, chased, and otherwise blown up, the film powers down as though someone pulled the plug on the game console.

Thirty-three years after he lost in the final round of the 1st Annual Arcade Video Game Competition in his hometown, Sam Brenner (Sandler) is not exactly the portrait of an overachiever. The failure on that grand stage came to dictate the course of his life afterward, to the point where the best application in the adult world he can find for his tremendous talent for the video games of old — PAC-MAN™, Galaga™, Centipede®, Space Invaders™, and the like — is working as a home theater installer.

But his knowledge and skill with all-but-forgotten video games is suddenly called for by his childhood best friend Coop (Kevin James), who now as President of the United States has to figure out how to defend the planet against attacks by aliens that look and sound uncannily like the very same games he and Sam played at the neighborhood arcade as kids. Recruiting their old friend and conspiracy-nut Ludlow (Josh Gad) and Sam’s nemesis from that fateful day at the game competition, Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plank (Peter Dinklage), Sam and Coop attempt to lead a defense against the aliens, who after grossly misinterpreting the contents of a NASA space capsule they encountered believe the footage of 80’s era games included in the capsule represented terms of an interstellar winner-take-all challenge. But even with the help of his friends and tech provided by Army researchers led by Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), can Sam overcome the self-doubt that still plagues him after that devastating defeat all those years ago in order to save the world and everyone on it?

Of course he can! This is an Adam Sandler movie, where the likable loser who’s always quick with a one-liner always wins AND gets the hot girl at the end! (Cue Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” from 1984’s The Karate Kid)

Pixels one-sheet

Based on a short film of the same name created by French film maker Patrick Jean in 2010 that became a viral hit, Pixels is certainly a cut above other recent film offerings from Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions thanks to director Chris Columbus’s light-hearted take on the apocalyptic alien invasion genre and innovative staging of real-life video game battles. The film is at its best when in the midst of those frenetic sequences, as Sandler and Gad single-handedly fend off death from above courtesy of Centipede®, or the whole company of “Arcaders” chase Pac-Man™ through the streets of New York in brightly-colored Mini Coopers doubling as the game’s “ghosts.” The beautifully CG-animated battles are full of sight gags, clever one-liners, and genuine tension — they grab your attention with all that bright color and motion, and just as if you’d fed your own quarter into the console to play, you want to make those scenes last for as long as possible to get the most bang for your buck. In particular if you were a child of that era and you played those games, it’s all great fun to watch.

But during the breaks in the action, when it comes down to advancing the token, oh-so-predictable storylines of the human characters — Sam’s love/hate flirtation with Violet, Lloyd’s painful social awkwardness and long-enduring unhealthy fixation on video game character Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson), Coop’s floundering presidency and the lift it gets from leading the efforts against the aliens — things grind to a halt as though a bug in the game caused a reset. As he’s done for quite a few films now, Sandler underplays his role to the point where he’s not even acting — he’s just being himself with a different name, and the lazy effort saps even the delivery of his zingers (which are often pretty funny lines, in fairness) of real bite and makes the possibility of any real chemistry with Monaghan practically impossible. James has to work a little harder in his role — he seems to know that his Paul Blart/King of Queens schtick isn’t enough for him to come off as remotely presidential — but for the most part what he delivers isn’t all that different from what we’ve seen from him before. If anyone in the human cast really stands out and is enjoyable to watch, it’s Dinklage, who never fails to steal the show no matter what he’s doing in TV or film, and does so here as the obnoxious, mullet-sporting, stuck-in-the-80s Plank. In fact, the payoff to a running gag involving Plank’s conditions for cooperating with Brenner and the Arcaders results in one of the film’s funniest scenes, one that surprisingly has almost nothing to do with video games.

So bottom line: when the film’s real stars — Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q-Bert, Frogger, and company — are on screen, Pixels is a pretty fun ride, one that will especially appeal to kids who will love the bright and colorful 8-bit characters and grown-ups who remember controlling those characters via joystick and trac-ball controllers back in the day. It’s only when the pesky live humans feel the need to banter amongst themselves that things get dull, to the point where you might wish that the film would end the way Patrick Jean’s film did back in 2010, with the video game characters actually winning and turning the entire Earth into one giant voxel (3D version of a pixel).

Unlike just about everything else in Pixels story-wise, that ending would have been someone nobody could see coming.

Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, and Brian Cox. Directed by Chris Columbus.
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.

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