Reset Your Expectations
It’s okay to skip Pixels, but at least do it for the right reasons—not the abysmal Tomatometer rating or the highly publicized ravings of an unhinged Internet critic, who probably had no business reviewing the film in the first place. I certainly won't judge anyone for avoiding the multiplex until Mission: Impossible 5 comes out. But bad movies deserve a fair trial prior to execution, and the latest Adam Sandler vehicle has been straight-up framed.
Pixels isn't a great movie, but it's a solid diversion aimed squarely at pre-teen boys. Granted, parents may need to have a talk with Junior after the show to make sure the anachronistic attitudes put across by writers Tim Herlihy and Jim Downing don't register as positives--but that's also true of some horror movies, video games, and raunchy sitcoms. Any adult who watches Pixels’ trailer and expects a high-falutin' love letter to the arcade classics of their youth needs to have their head examined. The 2007 Transformers film at least carried with it the mystery of how well (or poorly) Michael Bay might bring nostalgic action figures to life. Pixels spells everything out with the mid-trailer shot of Sandler's dopey, agape mouth saying, "Pac-Man's a bad guy?"
For the record, Pixels is Sandler's best movie in over a decade, and his first effort in a long time that isn't just a blatant, studio-sponsored-vacation picture. No beach hijinks. No barbecues. No resort excursions where the main attraction is humiliating Drew Barrymore. This is an admittedly glitchy, high-concept sci-fi comedy about four misfits who must stop an alien armada that've taken the form of early-80s video game characters. In 1982, NASA sent a VHS tape loaded with pop culture highlights (including clips from Atari’s entire catalogue into deep space). A not-so-intelligent race of creatures took it as a declaration of war, and they arrive decades later with some simple(ish) rules of engagement: mankind must win three real-life rounds of Centipede, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in order to prove our superiority and save the Earth.
Of course, the only ones qualified to take on these pixel-based menaces are a big-box-store IT guy (Sandler), a hyperactive conspiracy theorist* (Josh Gad), a wily convict (Peter Dinklage), and The President of the United States (um...Kevin James). They were all top competitors as children, and their ability to recognize old-school, pattern-based play gives them an edge over the modern crop of first-person-shooter fanatics. Joining them is a military officer named Violet (Michelle Monaghan), her son, Matty (Matt Lintz), and Pac-Man creator Professor Toru Iwatani (Denis Akiyama).
Unlike other attempts to corner the nostalgia market, director Chris Columbus smartly uses 80s kitsch as a foundation, not as the focal point of his narrative. He spices up the opening tournament flashback by showing the young Sandler character as a kind of video game savant, with play patterns reflecting in his obsessive eyes. The framing of this shot—a medium instead of a close-up—is an eerie reminder of games’ power to narrow the reality of being in a roomful of distractions and focusing only on small, dancing lights on a screen.
Later, as reality bends to a melee of hundreds of rampaging video game monsters, Columbus juxtaposes the horrors of people and buildings turning to fragmented, energy-cubed versions of themselves with seemingly innocuous images of Frogger crossing traffic or the Paperboy hurling exploding late-editions from his digital ten-speed. Sure, it’s a sanitized version of Destruction Porn, but it’s also really interesting to watch. These CGI atrocities have the same weird, visually compelling arc (turning on a dime from fascination to humor to horror) that made Patrick Jean’s original short film ripe for adaptation.
Maybe “horror” is the wrong word. Pixels doesn’t indulge in the head-scratching, 9/11-style ghoulishness of Man of Steel.** But there’s an edge to the action, a giddy sense of tiptoeing over an invisible adult-supervision line reminiscent of Columbus’ earlier films like The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting, or even the first Harry Potter film.
Much of the discussion surrounding Pixels has been about Sandler's plummeting hit ratio and the alleged desecration of sacred childhood icons, by association. Lost in all the easy, oddly bitter commentary is the fact that Columbus is a really talented filmmaker. He and his team of effects artists put on a hell of a show--no small feat, considering this is roughly the nine-hundredth alien invasion movie to hit since Independence Day. Pixels may be rough around the edges in the story-structure and joke departments, but it's a very well-made movie.
About those jokes. For the second week in a row, I've had to endure mainstream films aimed at wide audiences whose attitudes about race, gender, and sexuality are really quite alarming. One could be generous, I suppose, and call Pixels' humor "old fashioned", but much of it transcends "out-of-touch" and can best be classified as "extinct". Josh Gad's exuberant nerd character can't help but tease a platoon of buff soldiers with gay jokes and slaps on the ass (puzzling, since he has the hots for a scantily clad warrior woman). The film's main black role is relegated to a soldier who, after being rescued from alien captivity, hugs Kevin James' president and says, "Thanks, but you know Obama's my boy, right?"
Monaghan is positively radiant in her thankless job as the film's only main speaking female performer, and it's a shame she's saddled with Sandler--who began his career as the angry, amped-up man-child and now seems content to coast through middle age as the laconic, schlubby suburban dude. Aside from a tried-and-true movie formula of the single mom winding up with the unconfident hero-in-waiting, there's no reason to believe a character like Violet would let Captain Ambien out of the friend zone--no matter how many levels he beat to save humanity.
Writers Herlihy and Dowling (and Sandler, I suspect) firmly affix the Happy Madison stamp of crassness on this project. That's not surprising, but it is disappointing. Reined in just a tad (maybe two more drafts' worth), Pixels could have skirted outright ookiness and remained edgy kids' fare; knock the PG-13 rating down to a PG, and I doubt we'd be having this conversation.
Make no mistake: this is still a children's movie. Getting mad at Pixels for being a teen/adult-targeted Ghostbusters knock-off is like hating My Little Pony for its inaccurate depiction of horses. For a great illustration of the difference between thematically similar films with wildly different audiences in mind, watch the Sandler-pack-produced Grandma's Boy, then the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, then Pixels. The first is a foul-mouthed farce; the second is a gripping, real-life story of ego, competition, and redemption; the third is the Mad Magazine version of all of the above.
There are better kids' movies out there, to be sure. Worse ones, too. As middle-of-the-road fare goes, Pixels at least provides some fascinating things to look at between eye rolls.
*For me, the line, “JFK shot first!” was just about worth the price of admission.
**In fact, it has a leg up on that film, as evidenced by the aliens' final act before heading home.