Starring: Adam Sandler (Happy Gilmore), Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop), Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Josh Gad (Frozen), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones)
Director: Chris Columbus (Home Alone)
Writers: Tim Herlihy (Grown Ups 2) and Timothy Dowling (Role Models)
Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
Release Date: 24 July (US), 12 August (UK)
I know it’s pretty easy to write off any movie starring Adam Sandler at this point, but Pixels actually showed some promise. It’s got a great premise for a movie with strong potential for nostalgia and creativity, it’s based on a plotless but visually rich short film, the supporting cast has a good mix of dramatic and comedic actors, and it’s directed by an actual filmmaker. Sure, Chris Columbus hasn’t directed a good film in over a decade, but he’s got some truly classic films under his belt (Gremlins, The Goonies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, the first two Harry Potter films) and he’s far better than any of Sandler’s usual dial-a-schmuck hacks. I am an ever an optimist when it comes to upcoming films, and in spite of all red flags I try to go into a film with an open mind and ignore any bias. But nope. The warning signs were really that obvious from the start. Pixels doesn’t just suck. It is an appalling, degrading and offensive piece of film that only gets worse the more you think about it.
Of Pixels’ many, many, many, many, many problems, most of them stem from its trite, incoherent screenplay that feels like a first draft written over a weekend that wasn’t even briefly proofread. The plot is an absolute mess on all fronts, ricocheting from set piece to set piece, with no articulate internal logic that causes the film’s rules to constantly change and break for no apparent reason. For example, they establish trophies are awarded to the winning side of each game; for us, they take the form of game characters like the Duck Hunt dog and Q-Bert. But later on, it’s revealed cheating was used to win the second game and the aliens revoke humanity’s win. So if that’s the case, why did they award us with Q-Bert in the first place, and why does he still stick around after this revelation? The movie is full of nonsense like this. Subplots are introduced and then forgotten about, characters change motivation and personality on a whim, and everything else is just a pile of meaningless clichés. The film is unevenly structured and poorly paced, taking far too long to set up before breezing into its second act, and then suddenly it’s the big final battle and then it’s over; it completely negates any feeling of tension or impact. A lot of this could be excused if the movie was actually funny, but Pixels makes the same mistake so many modern comedies inexplicably make: it’s not at all funny. There are a few chuckle-worthy lines here and there, but those are random isolated moments that have no impact on plot and were probably adlibbed on set. Any of the big set piece jokes or running gags that drive the plot just fall completely flat, and most of the jokes that aren’t sexual or scatological are just a bunch of 80s references. This brings up another major conundrum: what is this movie’s target audience? Most of the jokes are far too juvenile for a discerning adult, but so many of the references are to things a child is going to have no frame of reference for. I’m sure some of them will get stuff like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, but what 12 year old is seriously going to laugh at references to Fantasy Island, Max Headroom and Hall & Oates? I’d be impressed if a kid even knew what one of those things was. I guess you could say the filmmakers were…out of touch? [Apologies. Obvious joke was obvious.]
As much as everyone rags on him, Adam Sandler is not talentless. Give him a good script and a talented director and he can really put in a good performance; I urge anyone who hasn’t seen Punch-Drunk Love to give it a shot and see proof of that. No, Sandler’s main problem is that he’s just lazy and his performance in Pixels is no exception. He’s just playing the same “sad sack loser with a heart of gold” that he always plays; a guy who we’re ostensibly supposed to like but who goes through absolutely no change because he’s apparently perfect already. It just screams of arrogant, smug superiority, and yet he’s probably still the best character in the movie. Kevin James thankfully isn’t relying too much on his weight from humour here, but without that he has absolutely nothing to work with and all you’re left with are his lacklustre acting skills. Michelle Monaghan does her best with the awful material given to her, but there’s just no getting around the fact her character is shallowly written and her chemistry with Sandler is completely non-existent; seriously, all this guy does is play video games and insult her, but somehow she’s won over by him? Peter Dinklage feels utterly wasted playing an insufferable d-bag who does nothing but spout dated slang and casual insults of all types; at one point, he completely screws over the planet for no other reason than arrogance and shows absolutely no worry or remorse about it, and he’s supposed to be one of the good guys. But while Monaghan and Dinklage simply look too good to be here, Josh Gad completely embarrasses himself in a stereotypical nerdy role so offensive it makes the cast of The Big Bang Theory look perfectly restrained; he’s so cringe-inducingly unfunny and derogatory that it’s close to the geek equivalent of blackface. Pretty much everyone other noteworthy actor in the movie has absolutely nothing to do. Brian Cox’s grumbling admiral seems to be set up as some secondary antagonist but then completely disappears come the third act, Sean Bean’s role is so insignificant it’s barely above a cameo, and why the f*ck is Jane Krakowski even in this movie? She’s an incredibly funny actress who could have done so much to liven up this mess, and yet she has only about six irrelevant lines and none of them contain jokes.
Now I normally don’t dedicate an entire paragraph to one aspect of a film like this, but this irked me so much it needs to be said: Pixels’ attitude towards gender politics is insulting on a degree I can’t possibly express properly, but I’m going to try. This is essentially going to be a mini-essay in the middle of my review with some spoilers, so go skip ahead if you—actually, no. Don’t skip ahead. This is important. OK, so there’s this whole subplot with Josh Gad’s character obsessing over this female ninja character from some made-up video game; his character is literally introduced making advances towards an arcade cabinet. That part’s just insulting to the nerd in me, but bear with me now. During the big final battle when all the game characters attack Washington DC, that same game character is among the invading forces and attacks Gad. But then Gad makes some bullsh*t plea to her about how he’ll always love her or something and then, out of bloody nowhere, she falls in love with him. OK, that’s mostly just god-awful sh*tty writing, but wait for it. So now the ninja girl is fighting with the humans for whatever reason, but when the aliens are defeated and they all turn to pixels, she dissipates too and leaves Gad all sad. OK, now here’s where it gets bad. Remember that whole Q-Bert trophy thing I mentioned earlier? So right at the end of the movie, Q-Bert turns into the ninja chick with absolutely no explanation as to why and she and Gad hook up. Sandler even quips, “Doesn’t anyone else find this weird? She was Q-Bert a second ago!” Yes, Mr. Sandler, but “weird” is kind of an understatement when you consider these two disgusting truths. Number 1: THE MOVIE IS LITERALLY SAYING SHE IS A TROPHY TO BE WON!!! And Number 2: THIS ENTIRE RELATIONSHIP HAPPENS WITHOUT HER UTTERING A SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE!!!!! She has no discernable personality, Gad shows no sign of appreciation for her outside of her looks, and did I mention SHE IS LITERALLY AN ITEM?????!!!!! I can’t…I…what is…what were they…F*CK!!!!!!!!!!…
[clears throat] Sorry about that. I think I’ve made my disgust clear. Back to the review.
Now, in case you thought I couldn’t mine some positive points out, I do have a few. Henry Jackman’s John Williams-inspired score is quite good, there’s a good selection of 80’s cheese classics on the soundtrack, and the visual effects used to bring all these video games characters to life are quite spectacular…at first. It’s basically the same effect over and over again, and once you’ve seen it that’s it; they don’t do much more with the concept. The cinematography is interesting during some of the action sequences, where camera angles and scene blocking often imitate the layout of the game being emulated, but otherwise it’s just the same bland camerawork you see in every modern comedy. The real culprit though is the editing, which kills the comedy almost as much as the script. The timing of cuts is just completely off most of the time, ruining a joke that might have worked by cutting off too quickly or letting something sit far too long. It’s like the editor didn’t know what was supposed to be funny and what wasn’t. Then again, neither did I most of the time.
Pixels is an utter travesty on every level, and what few bits of praise I can give it are insignificant compared to the mountain of things it just plain gets wrong. There’s a really cool idea for a movie hiding in here, but all potential has been dismembered and what’s left is a shambling deformed monster that needs to be put out of its misery. It’s a film that commits the ultimate crime: it’s insulting. It’s insulting to its source material, it’s insulting to fans of that source material, and it’s insulting to its audience’s intelligence. Video games still don’t get the respect they deserve in popular media, and this film is doing its reputation absolutely no favours. So please, if you consider yourself a gamer, watch pretty much any other movie involving gaming instead. Watch great movies like Scott Pilgrim vs The World, or WarGames, or The Last Starfighter, or Tron, or Wreck-It Ralph, or just wait for the Ready Player One movie to be made already (if they f*ck that up, we’re doomed). The Wizard and Gamer are far better movies about gaming than Pixels. Most films based on video games are better than Pixels; even Uwe Boll movies are funnier than this (unintentionally, but still). What more can I possibly say? This has got to be one of the worst summer blockbusters I have ever seen, and the fact it involves so many properties I love makes firing this bullet particularly painful. Say it with me now, people: F*CK THIS MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!
FINAL VERDICT: 1.5/10