I’m of the belief that there’s usually only one great horror story at the movies each year. With how amazing It Follows was, I assumed that was going to be it for impressively haunting scares in 2015; that movie has nothing on the terrifying transformation of Pixels from a breathtaking, award-winning short film just five years ago to this loud monstrosity starring Kevin James as the American president, Peter Dinklage in a mullet, and Adam Sandler doing stupid Adam Sandler things.
As kids in the early ‘80s, Brenner and Cooper were obsessed with arcade games, spending countless hours and quarters on Galaga, Centipede, Defender, Pac-Man, and the like, along with scrawny tagalong Ludlow and denim-vest-owning jerk Eddie.
Cut to present day, and Brenner (Sandler) is working for an off-brand Geek Squad (Best Buy being about the only product placement not used in the movie); Cooper (James) is the freaking President of the United States of America; Ludlow (Josh Gad) is an antisocial conspiracy nut; and Eddie (Dinklage) is in prison.
On one fateful 1982 afternoon, all four had competed in a video game tournament, footage of which was included in a satellite shot into space as a beacon for life. And life found it.
So what do the aliens on the receiving end of this video decide to do? Why, recreate all of the pixellated game creations they saw in the old footage and send them to attack Earth, naturally! And when the most elite Marines of the most militant country in the world are no match for the them, who can President Kevin James possibly call on to defeat the space invaders?
Adam Sandler movies are generally quite bad, but they’re not normally bad on this large a scale. The 88-million-dollar price tag and summer tentpole release date leave no convenient place for the movie to slink into obscurity like recent Sandler forgettables The Cobbler or Men, Women & Children. When Pixels crashes — and it does, early and often — it crashes loudly and with very bright colours.
Chris Columbus has directed some of the greatest mainstream movies of the last quarter-century, from Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, and Mrs. Doubtfire to the first two Harry Potters, Rent, and the first Percy Jackson movie. Even at his worst, he’s never made anything as awful as Pixels. It boggles the mind to fathom why he agreed to helm it. Perhaps someone had blackmail dirt on him, but if so, it must’ve be a doozy.
Curiously, one of the Sandler movies with which Pixels has the most in common is 2002’s Eight Crazy Nights. That Hanukkah tale was too vulgar and inappropriate for most children, yet too puerile and asinine to amuse most over the age of eight or nine.
Similarly, Pixels has all the earmarks of a family-friendly tour through neon and goofiness, and most of the laughs are, indeed, aimed squarely at those whose voices haven’t dropped. Yet it’s also composed entirely of references to 1980s technology, music, fashion, slang, and public figures that will way go over the heads of anyone born this side of a Sega Dreamcast.
And that’s saying nothing of the startlingly frightening death/dismemberment scenes scattered throughout the film that had multiple children in the theatre I saw Pixels in screaming and crying. (To be fair to the kids, I felt like screaming and crying through most of the movie, too.)
Now, in Pixels’ defence — hear me out — it’s actually not the worst Adam Sandler movie this year. (Hello again, The Cobbler.) Nor is it the worst Kevin James movie of the year. (Don’t even look at me, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.) It’s reasonably entertaining, when it can be bothered to try. And whoever chose to model Dinklage’s cocky, antagonistic Eddie on Billy Mitchell, the cocky antagonist of the nonfictional masterpiece The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is nothing short of a genius.
As an Adam Sandler movie, Pixels is about average, though that’s a slight improvement over recent fare of his like Jack & Jill or That’s My Boy. Ultimately, Sandler’s style of comedy (and a neutered dilution of it, at that) is just a terrible match for what still remains quite a rich premise for a movie. Pixels could have been another Wreck-It Ralph, another Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Instead, it’s another Spy Kids 3: Game Over.