If there’s one actor working today that is hated by seemingly every moviegoer and critic across the globe, it’s Adam Sandler. There’s a good reason for that, as he pukes out a new film every year, each one seemingly worse than the last. After the train wrecks that were “Jack and Jill” and “Grown Ups 2,” which are easily two of the most mind-numbing, soul crushing, rage inducing, insipid cinematic abortions of the last few years, it would be easy to write off his newest, “Pixels,” as more of the same, but that would be unfair. While it still succumbs to many of the problems most Adam Sandler movies do, there was some genuine effort put into this one and while it won’t blow anyone away, it’s unlikely to be the subject of derision among those willing to give it a shot.
Sandler plays Brenner, an electronics expert at a Geek Squad-esque retail company, and his best friend, Cooper (Kevin James), has overshadowed him in their adulthood and has worked his way up to the highest office in the country, residing as the President of the United States. As kids, Brenner was a video game expert, competing in the 1982 Worldwide Video Arcade Championships and falling short to only one other competitor, Eddie (Peter Dinklage). As part of an initiative to find potential life in the universe and introduce our customs to them, NASA sent video feeds of this tournament out into space. Over 20 years later, it’s learned that we did indeed stumble upon aliens, but they have misinterpreted those video feeds as a declaration of war. Using intense bundles of energy disguised as classic games such as Galaga, Pac-Man, Centipede and more, they begin their attack and the only way to save the world is to abide by the rules of the games and defeat them. After the world’s militaries struggle in battle, the President figures, who better to defeat the aliens than the best arcade gamers in the world?
As someone who grew up with classic video games, has an affinity for them and still enjoys them to this day, I approached “Pixels” with trepidation, fearful that they may take some of the most beloved pop culture icons of all time and ruin them with a plethora of bodily fluid and fat jokes, as Sandler and James movies are wont to do; “I guarantee Kevin James will attempt to eat a Pac-Man fruit at some point in the movie,” I joked to a co-worker prior to the film’s pre-screening. However, “Pixels” shows a surprising amount of restraint; aside from one quip from Dinklage to James, the jokes rarely took the low road with slapstick and fat jokes. More importantly, it treats these classic games with the respect they deserve. It could be argued that not enough was done with them to justify their inclusion—games like “Paperboy” and “Frogger” show up for no other reason than for viewers to acknowledge that they’re there—and such an argument wouldn’t be wrong; “Pixels,” for all of its potential, is decidedly lacking in imagination.
But while it doesn’t fully utilize these games to the extent it could, nor does it abuse them. There is a clear love for these games that shines onscreen and the very nature of the story only proves this fact, as the characters discuss classic gaming strategies and the mechanical patterns those old arcade games were known for. While gaming today is more randomized, games of old were meticulously programmed and, with some effort, the entire game could be memorized and beaten by following a pattern and “Pixels” revels in that. At times, certain gaming mainstays are forced into the proceedings, particularly one scene involving a cheat code that makes absolutely no sense, but the affection is there. So if you’re worried your memories of your time with these classic games may be tarnished, fear not. “Pixels” treats them with respect.
Still, “Pixels” stumbles heavily with a weak story and a forced in romance – evidently, Sandler can’t go through an entire movie without kissing a pretty girl, this time played by Michelle Monaghan, in a surprisingly more intelligent role than most female fodder in Sandler’s movies as a military weapons specialist. Most egregious, however, is Sandler’s continued insistence to pack as many noticeable faces into his films as he possibly can, including cameos from Dan Patrick, Sean Bean and a nothing role for Jane Krakowski as Cooper’s just-for-show wife. It also plays into the worst gamer stereotypes — you know the ones: they’re lazy, they don’t have friends or socialize, they live in their parents’ basements – but it also celebrates gamers, as it’s ultimately the gamer geeks who have to save the day.
With all that said, “Pixels” remains both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment, as it’s largely a give-and-take affair. It doesn’t feel like your typical inane Sandler movie, but it doesn’t do anything to stand out from the crowd. The humor is amusing, but it’s never truly funny. The action is competent, but overall underwhelming, as the film never capitalizes on the inherent abilities of the very games and characters it portrays. But it does just enough to work. Perhaps low expectations contributed to my overall enjoyment of it—an understandable state of mind given recent Kevin James and Adam Sandler films—and it may be slight, but “Pixels” is admittedly fun.