Film Review | Pixels

Lukewarm performances and a gimmick-heavy plot aren't even the worst things about this Adam Sandler movie

Face/Off: Pixels’ protagonists face Pac-Man as alien invaders turn New York into a videogame maze
Face/Off: Pixels’ protagonists face Pac-Man as alien invaders turn New York into a videogame maze

The best things, as the cliché goes, often come in small packages. Like French director Patrick Jean’s 2010 short film Pixels, a 2-minute piece about three-dimensional versions of creatures from 1980s videogames, such as Tetris and Space Invaders, invading New York. 

The idea of “virtual” beings invading the “real” world is not new - it was previously tackled in “Raiders of the Lost Arcade”, a 2002 episode of the animated series Futurama - but the combination of effective special effects and a good dollop of nostalgia within a bite-sized format guaranteed Pixels’ becoming a viral hit. Oh, and its rights being bought by Adam Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison Productions. Spoiler alert: the two-minute short is better than the one-and-three quarter-hour long movie. 

Pixels opens in 1982, where 13-year old Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) takes part in a videogame championship, where he ends up coming second to the arrogant Eddy Plant (Andrew Bambridge). Cut to present day, where the 46-year old Brenner (Adam Sandler) spends his days doing little beyond failing to get over his losing the videogame tournament and hanging out with his best buddy, President Cooper (Kevin James). 

A call to action, however, brightens Brenner’s days; the world is under attack by aliens taking the guise of classic videogame characters, and Cooper concludes the only persons able to save the world are the participants from the aforementioned tournament, meaning Brenner, Plant (Peter Dinklage) and third placer Ludlow (Josh Gad). Because no one else in the Year of Our Lord 2015 even remembers the likes of Galaga and Donkey Kong. Obviously. 

But let’s tackle the most immediate elephant in the room - Pixels is an Adam Sandler movie. And while Sandler has given us a couple of fine films (namely The Wedding Singer and Punch Drunk Love), he’s also the man responsible for some of the most awful “comedies” in recent history (there are too many to mention but ‘Jack and Jill’ is the one that sticks particularly mind).

Then there’s Kevin James, star of the equally dreadful Paul Blart: Mall Cop movies (Paul Blart Mall Cop as president of the United States is the biggest demand Pixels puts on one’s suspension of disbelief… the Taj Mahal getting turned into a pile of glowing bricks through a game of Arkanoid is cinéma vérité in comparison). Pixels might not be as bad as Jack and Jill or Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but that’s not saying much. Root canal surgery also makes for an arguably better experience.

Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire) tries his best to make a Ghostbusters-style action comedy of sorts, but it’s clear his glory days as the screenwriter behind classics such as The Goonies and Gremlins are long over. Instead, what the film provides are failed attempts at humour from a cast too disinterested to pretend to even care about the material and the CGI creatures contained within.

From the main cast only Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage appears to be having any fun as the scenery-chewing Plant (fun fact: Pixels is not Dinklage’s first videogame-related project since that honour belongs to online shooter Destiny, where he catatonically voiced what looks like a floating piece of abstract sculpture). Otherwise Josh Gad phones it in as a stereotypical creepy nerd, while Sandler’s performance is reaches levels of joylessness rarely captured on film.

The supporting cast is numerous but fares little better - Michelle Monaghan does little other than be the ensemble’s token female character turned Brenner’s love interest, Brian Cox is admittedly amusing as a bloodthirsty general, Sean Bean appears for a handful of minutes as a British military officer and Jane Krakowski is shockingly wasted as President Paul Blart Mall Cop’s wife.

Then there’s Ashley Benson, as videogame character turned flesh Lady Lisa, a mute literal trophy (as in given by the aliens, as a trophy) wife “won” by Ludlow and a demonstration of gender politics shockingly regressive even by the low, low standards of the 1980s videogames Pixels takes so much of its inspiration from. 

Things get better when the film switches from comedy to action, but there’s very little one can say on the matter. The special effects are fine enough but the cast fails to interact with them in a convincing enough manner, while the various recreations of videogame characters and sequences never rise beyond the level of scene dressing; replace the likes of Pac-Man with a generic alien creature, and Pixels would lose absolutely nothing beyond its main gimmick. 

Ultimately, Pixels has all the trademarks of an overlong, badly told joke. It starts off being slightly amusing, but soon enough all traces of humour dry up, and by the time the conclusion arrives all that’s left is embarrassment and shame. Sure, there are worse films out there, but do you seriously need to waste time on yet another Adam Sandler quasi-comedy?

Review by Marco Attard

More in Film