Film Review: ‘Pixels’

'Pixels' Review: It's Adam Sandler vs.
Courtesy of Sony

Adam Sandler presses a lot of buttons but mostly phones it in with this dim-witted '80s nostalgia trip.

An adorable life-sized version of Q*bert is easily the most engaging character in “Pixels,” a dimwitted ’80s nostalgia trip best appreciated by those who have waited years for Adam Sandler’s fine-grained intelligence and Chris Columbus’ filmmaking mastery to finally converge. For the remaining 99% of the moviegoing population, this slapdash, casually sexist revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy offers some mild visual distraction with its massive CGI renderings of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and other old-school videogame characters that have been co-opted here by malevolent space invaders, challenging Earth to the mother of all intergalactic arcade battles. Commercially, the somewhat novel combination of Sandler’s bro-comedy antics and an unexpected dose of geek appeal should help Sony’s July 24 Stateside release enjoy a few late-summer bonus rounds at the box office, aided by strong awareness and 3D ticket premiums.

Commercial returns should remain steady even if word-of-mouth reactions fail to rise much above the level of “Well, at least that was better than ‘Grown Ups 2.’” Which “Pixels” probably is, insofar as its highly marketable gaming elements and ostensibly kid-friendly appeal have diluted some of the more offensive aspects of Sandler’s comic signature. There is, alas, more than a little residual misogyny in the insulting development of the movie’s female characters (if that’s the word), and in this case the sexism feels not just reflexive but almost obligatory, given the male-dominated videogame culture being celebrated in the high-concept, low-ambition screenplay by Tim Herlihy (“Grown Ups 2,” “Big Daddy”) and Timothy Dowling (“Just Go With It”).

It begins with a formative moment at the 1982 arcade-game world championships, where 13-year-old gaming enthusiast Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) narrowly loses first place to a mullet-wearing smartass named Eddie “the Fire Blaster” Plant (Andrew Bambridge) after an ill-fated game of “Donkey Kong.” Some 30 years later, Sam (now played by Sandler) works a dead-end job installing home-entertainment systems in Washington, D.C. Faring somewhat better is his childhood best friend, Will Cooper (Kevin James), who is now president of the United States — a development that is wisely left unexplained. Conveniently, POTUS winds up turning to Sam and their other pal, Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), after a series of mysterious attacks by what appear to be characters from ancient videogame templates.

The explanation is clear — dumb, but clear. Evil extraterrestrials intercepted an ’80s-era NASA time capsule containing footage of those old single-player classics, and mistook them for a declaration of war. Now they’ve returned the challenge by scheduling a series of skirmishes with Earth, each one taking on the interface of a different videogame; if we lose, it’s game over for the whole planet. Happily, Sam and Ludlow wind up proving themselves early on (and shaming the overgrown military jocks played by Brian Cox and Sean Bean) by clobbering the aliens in a few rounds of “Centipede.” Next, they manage to track down their old nemesis Eddie (now Peter Dinklage) for a rowdy game of “Pac-Man,” a car-chase sequence in which the beloved yellow dot-gobbler has been reborn as a villainous giant sphere munching his way through the streets of New York. (Denis Akiyama turns up as original “Pac-Man” creator Toru Iwatani, while the real-life Iwatani makes a brief appearance elsewhere.)

It’s here that Columbus’ past experience with f/x-heavy fantasy (on the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson franchises) comes into play. In bringing these outmoded videogame creations to mammoth, destructive life, the director and his visual-effects team have at once updated their crude, low-resolution look and skillfully integrated them into live-action, the effect amplified somewhat by the film’s 3D conversion (as stated in the press notes, a more accurate title would have been “Voxels”). If the edges look a bit rougher than usual, that’s wholly in keeping with the games’ relatively primitive aesthetic.

As for the movie’s apocalyptic stakes, they’re treated with no more consequence than an air-hockey match, a few smashed-up historic landmarks notwithstanding. At its silliest and most endurable, “Pixels” plays like an extended ode to not just Nintendo culture, but also ’80s culture in general; that much is clear from the soundtrack, with its generous sampling of Zapp, Tears for Fears and Loverboy, plus two different flare-ups of “We Will Rock You VonLichten.” And then there’s the aliens’ amusing habit of communicating with Earth by way of old Madonna clips, Hall & Oates musicvideos, and (at one point) a giant talking replica of Max Headroom. Pop-cultural nostalgia, of course, practically constitutes its own genre by this point, and “Pixels” is hardly the first feature-length valentine to our fondly remembered mass-entertainment touchstones.

If only the movie in front of us actually fit that description, or truly conveyed the addictive pleasures of gaming, rather than serving up another barrage of witless one-liners, strained reaction shots and aggressively inane celebrity cameos. (Serena Williams, turning up randomly at a soiree: “They promised me an island if I did this.”) Really, the viewer would be better off spending 98 minutes browsing old “Bomberman” walk-throughs on YouTube than trying to care what happens to Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a tough-talking weapons expert who supplies our heroes with pixel-blasting light cannons. Her real purpose, alas, is to carry on a cringe-inducing, chemistry-free flirtation with Sam when she’s not watching him fight from the sidelines.

Violet also has an earnest young moppet (Matt Lintz) and an ex-husband whose infidelity sends her weeping into her bedroom closet with a bottle of hooch — all told, the sort of “character development” that makes you wish the writers had made her a brainless bimbo and been done with it. Still, Monaghan might as well be playing Medea next to Ashley Benson, who gives a wordless eye-candy performance as Lady Lisa, the scantily clad, sword-wielding fantasy heroine of Ludlow’s dreams. Even more grievously wasted is Jane Krakowski as the First Lady, whose most important scene requires her to laugh and decorate a cake. This isn’t exactly “Gamergate: The Movie,” but intentionally or not, it captures the movement’s boorish ethos with dispiriting accuracy.

James’ beer-guzzling POTUS is, at the very least, a welcome alternative to Paul Blart, and Dinklage has his usual fun playing a small chap with a big attitude. Gad, who scored a mid-sized hit earlier this year with “The Wedding Ringer,” goes crazily over-the-top as the eccentric nerd-crackpot of the group, standing in sharp contrast to Sandler, who has rarely seemed like such a nonentity onscreen. Over the years, the actor’s delight in playing the egregiously stupid man-child has slowly calcified into laziness bordering on fatigue; where Sandler once exulted in our outrage (and frequently, our laughter), he now seems barely capable of mustering enough effort to carry a scene, let alone advance to level 255 of “Galaga.” There’s no joy left in his shtick.

Film Review: 'Pixels'

Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Calif., July 14, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with LStar Capital and China Film Co., of a Happy Madison/1492 Pictures production, in association with Film Croppers Entertainment. Produced by Adam Sandler, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Allen Covert. Executive producers, Barry Bernardi, Michael Barnathan, Jak Giarraputo, Steve Koren, Heather Parry, Patrick Jean, Benjamin Darras, Johnny Alves, Matias Boucard, Seth Gordon, Ben Waisbren.

Crew

Directed by Chris Columbus. Screenplay, Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling; screen story, Tim Herlihy, based on the short film by Patrick Jean. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, 3D), Amir Mokri; editor, Hughes Winborne; music, Henry Jackman; production designer, Peter Wenham; art directors, Richard L. Johnson, Peter Grundy; set decorators, Rosemary Brandenburg, Rosalie Board; costume designer, Christine Wada; sound (Dolby Atmos), Glen Gauthier; supervising sound editor, Steve Slanec; sound designer, Steve Boeddeker; re-recording mixers, Boeddeker, Gary Summers; special effects supervisor, Burt Dalton; special effects coordinator, Laird McMurray; visual effects supervisor, Matthew Butler; visual effects producer, Denise Davis; visual effects, Digital Domain 3.0, Trixter, Storm Studios, Atomic Fiction, Pixel Playground; special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; stunt coordinator, Bob Brown (U.S.), Layton Morrison (Canada); fight choreographer, Peng Zhang; 3D conversion, Gener8 Digital Media Services; associate producers, Lyn Lucibello-Brancatella, David Witz, K.C. Hodenfield, Yuka Kato; assistant director, Hodenfield; second unit director, Bob Brown.

With

Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski, Anthony Ippolito, Andrew Bambridge, Matt Lintz. (English, Hindi, Japanese dialogue)

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  1. Steve Johnson says:

    In the movie Pixels at the word tournament there are 2 discrepancies I found. First is at kick off of the tournament there is a guy who makes reference to the karate kid. Although a very good 80’s movie it did not come out til 1984 the tournament is to take place July 26th 1982. Second is after being beaten Cooper and Sam are talking Cooper tells Sam not to worry because he is still going to go to MIT and invent something that will make him a millionaire and marry Olivia Newton John, Sam in return says he was thinking Samantha Fox. Although Samantha Fox was in deed a 8o’s female artist she was only 16 in ’82 and not yet the sexy sing we came to know her as. The third thing was in the same conversation where Sam ends the conversation by saying “well there is always Madonna” . We all know Madonna is a 80’s icon but she didn’t release her first single until late 1982 and wouldn’t have been known by these boys in July of ’82.
    I’m not taking anything away from this movie because I really loved it as I do most ALL of Adam Sandler movies. I just felt compelled to point out those few things.

  2. Thomas lewis says:

    I think the movie was pretty cool I loved it

  3. Steven Arnold says:

    Just saw the movie on DVD. I found it enjoyable, somewhere in the middle scale of Sandler’s films. My reaction to your review is, if you don’t like nerd comedies and bro-mance films, don’t review them. There is a lot of classic Sandler here. But I’m getting tired of seeing him raked over the coals for purely political reasons (“misogynistic,” etc.). Pixels is a fine film, certainly popcorn-worthy and great for little kids. My one complaint would be that as Sandler’s films become larger ensembles, there’s less space in the movie to enjoy Sandler’s own characters. But that’s his choice as a filmmaker.

    • Anybody says:

      Seriously?! Did you REALLY say “If you don’t like “___X___” you shouldn’t review it”????! THAT’S your logic?!
      Do you not understand how utterly ridiculous that statement is?

  4. Michelle says:

    Pixels is actually very funny. I do like Adam Sandler’s comedy style and I know he’s not everyones cup of tea. However this is not supposed to be a deep, emotional award-winning drama. Most movie goers aren’t looking for the next Oscar winner. Just the hope of escaping reality for a couple of hours and laughing. I got my money’s worth.

  5. Liam says:

    So, the first topic of your review is that you bash Sandler. Basically you bash his intelligence by giving a sarcastic remark about his “fine-grained” intelligence but do not seem to back up that claim. Intelligence, being a very subjective term, needs reinforcing evidence. Take “Punch Drunk Love” for example, a very sweet, odd, indie-type film. He really acts in this movie and puts thought into his character “Barry”. The humor, albeit dark, is also very cute and fun. However there is a central plot and theme easy enough to follow. Another example, Mr. Deeds, Sandler plays a sweethearted character who is knew to the New York world, he learns what it is like to be stabbed in the back. Next time, instead of bashing Sandler’s intelligence as the very first thing you said, you should make this review’s topic about the movie.

  6. Grown Ups 2 made $246,984,278 ($80m budget) and had a Cinemascore of B. Eveyone loves that movie, except Variety, and most of the other media intelligentsia.

    Why so anti Sandler? Seems like a petty personal vendetta to me. Didnt he give enough to your LGBT charities or higher enough blacks or treat all women like the princesses they are?

  7. Stanley O says:

    Mr. Sandler doesn’t give a sh!t about Variety’s ongoing attempt to destroy his career. It’s time for this lame BS to stop. Move on.

  8. Gaia Glockner says:

    I don’t care what this says. I believe that Adam Sandler and Kevin James are a great duo, and I’ve been a fan of Sandler’s movies since I was a child. Just because you didn’t enjoy that movie, doesn’t mean you have to flat out tell people to not see it. Everyone has different tastes in humor and may find this movie hilarious. Those who didn’t enjoy it, okay that’s fine with me but not try to “convince” me that any other movie would better than this and that Sandler is the worst actor ever. Just back off! And Chris Columbus has made great movies. I loved the first two Harry Potters, they really captured the books image and that’s that. The Percy Jackson movies could have been better, but were still good visually. And this movie is hilarious. I loved it and thought it looked visually amazing. But everyone is entitled to their opinions.

  9. Tara says:

    I just saw this movie with my kids and they loved it and so did I. They laughed so hard they continued to laugh while we traveled back home. I think Adam Sandler and Kevin James make a good team. In my opinion Adam Sandler is up there with Jim Carey. What ever ingredients Adams comedian act have is just who he is as a funny actor and I would not want him to change. Furthermore, the fact that Kevin James being the president of the United states in this movie is an explanation in its self because as children we are told that we can become whom ever we choose to become as long we work hard at it and never give up.

  10. Kade says:

    I dug the trailer until I saw Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and Josh Gad. I said nope not gonna waste my money on this garbage. I find all three to be painfully unfunny.

  11. You did the Social Justice Warriors the favor of using the buzzword “sexism” in the preface to the review so they not only know it’s verboten to see the movie, but they also don’t even need to read the rest of the review.

  12. CharBarn says:

    You lost me at “sexism.”

  13. mortimer aeinhard. says:

    Oh pipe down. All you people with your bad reviews.
    So what if it was based on a short video? Lots of movies or shows are based on short videos and end up a success, that’s not a viable reason to call it terrible.

    It wasn’t sucky or a bore, I’ve been going through a panic attack and watching the movie tonight actually made me forget about stuff and relax a little. It was funny, and who wouldn’t want to be in actual video games?

    Only thing I didn’t like was Qbert turning into Lady Lisa and making little Qbert babies with Ludlow.

    Over all it was an okay movie, certainly doesn’t deserve all you people attacking the cast just because.

  14. Todd Jacobs says:

    Sandler did to his movies the same thing that venereal diseases did to sex. Except there’s no cure for Sandler.

  15. Todd Jacobs says:

    Sandler is horrible and unfortunately Sandler doesn’t realize it…

  16. Moviecritic says:

    If this movie is a disaster can you image how bad the Netflix Movies are.

    • dmoney666 says:

      That deal INFURIATED me. Of all the talented people out there, HE gets a deal like that. I love Netflix, but that was an awful call. I hope they like burning money.

  17. rjbailey says:

    Reblogged this on Locating Frankenstein's Brain and commented:
    Almost exactly what I thought it would be.

  18. stevenkovacs says:

    Filmed in Toronto!❤️👍🏻

  19. ScratStitch says:

    “a dimwitted ’80s nostalgia trip best appreciated by those who have waited years for Adam Sandler’s fine-grained intelligence and Chris Columbus’ filmmaking mastery to finally converge.”

    So where’s your Punch Drunk Love? How about your Harry Potter movies? Yup. These guys are total failures, right?

    • anon says:

      Punch-Drunk Love is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie that Adam Sandler happened to star in.

      Chris Columbus only directed the first two HP movies and they are arguably the weakest of the series.

      • Not a Harry Potter fan are you? The first two were the best! They looked amazing and had every little detail that was in the books. The weakest was the 5th and 6th one where they screwed everything up and left out crucial details and just…changed the story completely.

  20. anonymous says:

    I won’t go see this unless there is literally nothing to do this weekend…oh wait paddle boarding, going outside american beer and girls….ya way better than sitting staring at giant screen like a zombie

  21. anonymous says:

    I really want to see Adam Sandler as Happy Gilmore again.

  22. Oy Vey says:

    It’s this year’s R.I.P.D. — which means: Not Good.

  23. John Miller says:

    Sandler needs to be banned from movies. Easily the laziest “actor” in recent memory.

  24. Mike says:

    Ugh – Columbus has always been a hack – and teaming with Sandler and James just shows that he’s actually given up on ever trying to be a real director.

  25. dmoney666 says:

    I wish I could understand how Adam Sandler is even allowed to step foot in Hollywood anymore. Seriously. I REFUSE to waste another dime or another minute of my life watching any more of his horrible movies. He hasn’t been funny for 15 years. Yet, hundreds of talented people, who are dying to break in to the business, continue to struggle on. Amazing.

    • With all the trash on the big screen you grip about this; I thought the movie was fun, and all the adults I was with loved it and the kids laughed all the way till the end. I think there is a lot of people out there still loving Sandler films and we are college educated and all age groups. Don’t waste your money on a fun filled film, go watch the trashy stuff you seem to enjoy.

  26. Matt says:

    Do we ever get to see the actual aliens?

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