Pixels is the “Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans” of cinema. You know there’s a huge chance of it being awful, but you still want to know just how awful it might be. And you have that little bit of hope that it may be enjoyable. The film manages to have a few decent beans in its box, but these beans are few and far between. Any semblance of fun is quickly sucked away by the bad beans, including sloppy storytelling, unlikable characters, unfunny jokes, predictable themes, and unashamed sell-outs.
The premise of the film is that in 1982, a space probe filled with footage of video games was sent into orbit so that aliens can find it and contact Earth. Many years later, the aliens misinterpret the footage as a declaration of war and attacks the Earth using weaponized versions of classic video game characters. So now it’s up to former video game champ Sam Brenner and his band of misfits to save the world.
Why did they send a probe filled with footage of pixelated aliens being blasted to smithereens in the hope that aliens find it? Because video games? It’s never really explained, actually.
That’s the first problem I have with this film: the story is sloppily told. The premise is as simple and silly as a video game made in the 1980’s, but the film adds in so many unnecessary subplots and detours that the pacing becomes uneven and story elements are often left unexplained. Do we need a small, irrelevant subplot where the President wants to spend more time with his wife? Why did the aliens suddenly decide that Sam didn’t follow the terms of war when there’s no evidence of him disobeying them? The narrative curve and character arcs are there, mostly because they lift the whole “hero’s journey” narrative present in so many other films, but there is too much unnecessary chaff and the important stuff gets lost as a result. It would have been a lot snappier and fun had they left more on the cutting room floor. But even then, I don’t think we’d have a much better time.
The story is indeed a “hero’s journey”, but the characters are so unlikable that they’re borderline anti-heroes (and not the interesting kind). The actors do an acceptable job of conveying their characters, but it doesn’t make them any more endearing.
Adam Sandler plays Sam-dler Brenner, a former video game champ who’s stuck in a dead end job and is nostalgic for the past, just like you! The movie tries to make Sandler’s character seem relatable, but he spends most of his screen time acting like a cocky, bored schmuck, constantly belittling everyone and making passes at woman who would normally avoid him like the plague.
Josh Gad plays Ludlow Lamonsoff, who has the personality and paranoia of Lester Crest from Grand Theft Auto 5 and none of the brilliance or memorability. He’s by far the most painful to watch, embodying every outdated gamer stereotype imaginable.
Kevin James plays President Will Cooper, a controversial president who bears a striking resemblance to Governor Chris Christie. Michelle Monaghan plays the token love interest Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten, who flip-flops from a powerful, intelligent government official to a whiny, delicate woman whose ex-husband cheated on her and vice versa.
Finally, Peter Dinklage, known for his role as the badass and cunning Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, is an 80’s slang-uttering, over-the-top parody of Billy Mitchell known as Eddie Plant. His character was the most fun to watch (well, out of all of the other characters), if not for the fact that it’s Peter Dinklage playing such a ridiculous character.
While the writing for the characters is awful, nowhere is the film’s lackluster writing more apparent than from the comedy. Every single joke is not only cliché and poorly told, but also is told at the expense of either a character, a vulnerable demographic of people, or both. Whether it be overweight people, the elderly, or geeks, no one is safe from being a punchline. While I agree that, as Mark Twain said, “The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow,” I think there is still value in laughing with people, not at them. In addition, you can even hear some jokes being told twice in the film, only reworded. Two or three jokes get a chuckle, but everything else is flat at best and cringe-worthy at worst.
Of course, you can’t have a summer movie without a few big action scenes, and I’ll admit that they’re mostly entertaining. The weaponized video game icons themselves look alright by modern CGI standards, and move about the screen in a mostly authentic way. The scene where the gang tries to chase Pac-Man while driving in cars color-coded to match the four ghosts was especially fun. However, most of these scenes suffer from an abundance of close-ups and quick cuts that makes the action too busy and hard to follow. And having the brightly colored, glowing video games sprites jumping about doesn’t help. The last action sequence where they’re in a completely virtual world makes the green screen way too apparent. It looks like Sandler stumbled onto the set of Tron.
The film seems to be more concerned with product placement than actually providing an enjoyable movie. The shoehorning of video game characters is the most apparent and cynical of these advertisements. Had it not been for the gaming-centered story and dialogue, you could have swapped out the video game monsters with anything, like giant lizards, sharks, squirrels or cantaloupes. At one point, someone indirectly tells the audience that you can buy Galaga on your mobile phone for $1.99. It’s not just video games that are being advertised either. The Mini Cooper is featured prominently in the aforementioned chase scene with Pac-Man. Saving the world – brought to you literally by the Mini Cooper.
The vilest part of this shameless marketing comes when they try to pass Denis Akiyama as Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man. I genuinely thought that he was the real deal, so you can understand how betrayed I felt when I found out after viewing the film that he was played by someone else. But the most baffling part is that the real Toru Iwatani is present in the film as a cameo. How could you get the actual person and not use him to play as the actual person!? Maybe Iwatani didn’t want to personally witness the butchering of his life’s work.
But that’s not all the exploitation in this film; it also suffers from an undercurrent of misogyny. Video games are infamous for misrepresenting women, and the film certainly doesn’t try to dispel any biases. At the very end, all of the main characters are rewarded with their very own princesses. Strong Violet eventually succumbs to the charms of relatable, everyday fanny Sam. Eddie ends up sleeping with both Martha Stewart and Serena Williams as themselves; I wish I made that up. Ludlow receives Lady Lisa (played by Ashley Benson), a video game character he’s obsessed over for years. The gross thing is that whenever a battle between the humans and aliens ends, the winning side get to keep a warrior from the losing side as a trophy. So Ludlow receives Lady Lisa as a literal trophy wife.
Pixels is, in essence, a modern reincarnation of those crappy monster/disaster films that plagued the mid-90s, complete with an over-emphasis on GCI over storytelling, rampant product placement, shoehorned celebrity appearances, and horrible stereotypes of geeks. The movie tries to play it safe by reusing tires and true narratives and archetypes, but ends up offending everyone through its poor writing and comedy. It’s far from abysmal, but it’s even farther from good or even passable. It doesn’t please movie fans and/or gamers. You’d have more fun playing the arcade machines in the movie theater lobby.