Despite a solid premise and talented supporting cast, Pixels is another shallow addition to Adam Sandler's product line.
After taking second-place in a video game championship when he was ten-years old, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) spent the next three decades underachieving. Instead of attending MIT as planned, Brenner struggled to overcome the disappointment of his loss, settling for a thankless TV installation job and an unfaithful (ex-)wife.
However, when mysterious attackers destroy a U.S. air force base, Brenner's childhood best friend (now President of the United States of America), Will Cooper (Kevin James) calls upon the former video game expert to consult on a new extra terrestrial threat. An advanced alien race has misinterpreted a Reagan-era space transmission (featuring video of 1982 pop icons, TV shows, and video games) as a hostile challenge for the fate of both worlds. Without a clear understanding of the how the war for our world will be waged, Cooper and the U.S. military have no choice but to give Brenner command of the Arcaders, a team of classic video game pros, in an 8-bit battle for humanity's survival.
Based on the viral short film hit of the same name, written and helmed by Patrick Jean, Pixels has been adapted for the big screen by director Chris Columbus (Harry Potter) and screenwriter Tim Herlihy (Grown Ups 2) with production oversight from Adam Sandler (in addition to a starring role). The final film is a mishmash of creative ideas and slick effects spun together with eye-rolling comedy and mundane storytelling. Retro gamers and 8-bit arcade veterans will enjoy fleeting moments to reminisce but Pixels is, above all else, the next generic Adam Sandler installment - overshadowing a solid foundation of inspired visual effects and a clever premise with the actor's lowest-common-denominator comedy brand.
In face of critical lashings, Sandler remains a box office draw and, without question, some viewers will enjoy Pixels as a harmless piece of thoughtless escapism. Nevertheless, the film is bloated and unfocused - blending 1980s pop-culture gags and 8-bit gaming references into a standard Sandler movie setup: an underachieving man-child has to overcome insecurity, win the day, and get the girl. As a result, the story is mirrored by the process of Sandler's involvement in the larger film project: starting with a barebones (albeit smart) 8-bit aliens invade Earth setup and filling in gaps with one-note caricatures and childish Sandler humor. After co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller managed to turn LEGO bricks into one of 2014's best films, it's easy to see the squandered potential (both heart and humor) in Pixels - that could have provided something genuinely special in more imaginative hands.
Sandler's arc in the film, as Brenner, will be familiar to viewers who have seen any of the actor's recent paint-by-numbers characters - and the comedian/producer does nothing to differentiate Brenner from these prior roles. At the outset, there's a short-lived opportunity for the actor to craft a worthy hero, a man that is actually aware of, and sensitive to, other people - instead of racing toward the next insult. Unfortunately, as soon as the main Pixels threat locks into place, Brenner is indistinguishable from Sandler's norm: a sarcastic protagonist - a guy who spends more time putting other people down than addressing his own faults (and general lack of ambition in life). Worst of all, the final act (and its revelations) don't challenge Brenner or his worldview - further reinforcing that his life failures were not his fault, he was a victim all along.
In keeping with the overall uneven balance of creativity and stupidity in the larger film, the supporting cast offers a mix of likable performances with little room to develop or payoff. Instead of focusing on a few key characters with actual influence on the showdown between aliens and retro gamers, Pixels parades a lengthy train of familiar faces (including Brian Cox, Jane Krakowski, and Sean Bean) in front of viewers - for fleeting digs at celebrities, military personnel and leaders around the globe. Similarly, Columbus spends a significant amount of time, in an already undercooked story, to setup celebrity cameo jokes that do not offer worthy return on time invested.
The worst? A completely non-sensical story beat that sees Pac-Man developer Toru Iwatani join the Arcaders to take-on his creation in New York City; except, the "cameo" isn't actually Iwatani. The Pac-Man creator is played by Denis Akiyama (though Iwatani still has an actual cameo earlier in the film). Most Pixels characters are built on similar logic - fuel for specific (half-baked) comedy scenes (read: "Wouldn't if be funny if Iwatani was attacked by Pac-Man?") that come and go. Some viewers will laugh at these scenes but that doesn't mean there isn't still a more focused (and overall funnier) film that could have been crafted around the core characters and conflict.
Nevertheless, Pixels isn't a total failure. As mentioned, the visual effects, use of 3D, and overall interpretation of 8-bit games as big screen CGI villains, will provide plenty of fun for younger viewers as well as retro nostalgia for former arcade gamers - even if the movie ultimately plays fast and loose with their "rules." Additionally, even though James is underutilized, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, and Michelle Monaghan are each afforded moments to shine in the spotlight. There's no romantic chemistry between Monaghan and Sandler but the actress relishes in this zany experience - and, at the very least, has the honored distinction of being one of the only characters in Pixels that gets to take shots at Sandler. Gad doesn't stray from his usual comedy persona but, even if he's not taking a major risk with his role (as a former acquaintance of Brenner-turned-full on conspiracy nut), Gad's self-deprecating humor is a fit for the film - and provides a steady stream of quirk and charm.
That said, stepping far outside of his critically-acclaimed part as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage is a scene-stealer in Pixels. Playing a Donkey Kong champion, loosely based on King of Kong's Billy Mitchell, Dinklage provides many of the movie's most entertaining one-liners and callbacks; not to mention, in a film where many of the actors either have bit parts, rest on bland caricatures, or don't care to differentiate their work in Pixels from past films, Dinklage ensures that his character, Eddie Plant, is a memorable addition. The role isn't going to win Dinklage any awards and detractors will find ways to pick apart the performance but the actor succeeds where the majority of Pixels fails - delivering worthy laughs.
Despite a solid premise and talented supporting cast, Pixels is another shallow addition to Adam Sandler's product line. The film is especially disappointing because of the creativity and imagination that was put into Patrick Jean's original Pixels short - as well as the animators and visual effects artists that contributed to the big screen adaptation. The combined efforts of these artists, Dinklage, and inclusion of passing references to 1980s video game culture may provide enough incentive for moviegoers, who are still interested after seeing the film's trailer, to check Pixels out in a theater. Regardless, most of the movie's high points succeed in spite of, not because of, Sandler's influence. At times, Pixels delivers laugh-worthy entertainment but a more inspired filmmaking team could have crafted a much more memorable and special film based on Jean's indie short.
PIXELS SHORT FILM
Pixels runs 105 minutes and is PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Pixels episode of the SR Underground podcast.