The idea of saving the world from alien invaders with classic video-game skills is not without a certain dumb appeal. Let’s face it: There have been plenty of movies where the aliens attack in boring old ships, and the Earth must be defended by fighter pilots armed with the same old air-to-air missiles or photon torpedoes or laser cannons that flyboys have used to defend hearth and home in reality and fiction for the better part of a century or so. Why should flyboys get all the glory?
Who among us doesn’t have some highly developed yet basically useless skill — a skill that could be imagined, by some highly improbable if not downright ridiculous turn of events, to turn out to be the one critical skill on which everything turns? Who among us could not at least dream of murmuring at some moment of high crisis, like Rhino the hamster in Bolt, “All of my training … has prepared me for this moment”?
Who among us has reached adulthood or middle age without still nursing some childhood trauma that continues to define us, a moment when a spiteful rival crushed our hopes and dreams — a rival to whom we would not turn even if the fate of the world depended on it? Wait. Actually, that one’s not really me. I won’t deny there were people who made my life miserable at certain points in my youth, but I’m over it now.
Adam Sandler and I are close in age, and as he is apparently fixated on nostalgic celebrations of the decade in which we both came of age, the 1980s, it seems I am doomed to be the putative target audience of his films until one of us retires. I played Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in arcades in the early 1980s, and I can imagine a version of Pixels that I would love, although it would probably not star Sandler. That’s because Sandler’s characters tend to be emotionally stuck in the early 1980s, which is to say, around 13 years old. Pixels has been pitched as a family film, but like many Sandler films it’s really aimed not so much at 13-year-olds as the inner 13-year-olds of immature viewers in their 40s.
13 is how old Sam (Sandler) is when we first meet him in a prologue, set in 1982, on the day he discovers Pac-Man. I remember 1982 well, but I have grown up since then, and Sam has not. Sandler’s semi-flirtatious, semi-bickering interaction with Michelle Monaghan’s character has a distinctly junior-high feel to it; when he first lays eyes on her, his stammering response recalls the throwaway gag at the end of Pixar’s Inside Out, where Riley tries to give a boy something he dropped, and inside his head he’s in air raid–style panic mode, with flashing lights and a klaxon alarm going Girl! Girl! Girl! Monaghan’s character, named Violet, is introduced as a hot mom who has just been dumped by her husband for his 19-year-old Pilates instructor. Violet has called in Sam, who works for a Geek Squad-type nerd-for-hire outfit, to set up some electronic equipment that her son Matty (Matt Lintz) received as a sort of broken-home consolation prize. The speed and ease with which Matty starts rooting for Sam to step in and take his dad’s place in his mom’s broken heart is just one of the icky things that keeps Pixels from being the dumb but harmless movie it might otherwise have been.
Pixels borrows from Galaxy Quest (aliens mistake pop-culture fantasy for reality and use super tech to build practical versions), Ghostbusters (heroes in matching jumpsuits use energy weapons to battle a sinister version of a traditionally friendly pop-culture icon/archetype on the streets of New York), Armageddon (Earth’s best and brightest are reluctantly forced to turn to scruffy slobs with special skills to save the planet from an extraterrestrial threat) and more. There’s even a scene straight out of Armageddon, in which a character demands various perks, including no income tax for life, in exchange for saving the planet. That scene features Peter Dinklage as Sam’s boyhood rival Eddie Plant, an arrogant, preening gaming champion in a mullet, who pompously calls himself “Fireblaster.” Dinklage is so over the top, in a movie that’s otherwise about as dull and listless as Sandler’s characters tend to be, that when Eddie is on the screen the movie actually becomes watchable. Dinklage made me laugh a number of times, and in a movie like this, the bar is set so low that that’s about all it sets out to do.
On the other hand, among his saving-the-world perks, along with his own private island, Eddie wants a Lincoln-bedroom threesome with Serena Williams and, um, Martha Stewart. What he accepts instead is Serena as his date at a government soiree (in exchange for which the government promises her the island Eddie didn’t get). Disappointed when Serena rebuffs his crass come-on, Eddie grumbles, “I should have gone with Martha Stewart. At least I’d have some tasty panini.” It’s a funny line, although in the very end the movie suggests that Serena, Martha and the tasty panini are all waiting for Eddie in the Lincoln bedroom.
Along with Eddie, Sam’s allies include Kevin James as a silly Chris Christie-ish president, who just happens to be Sam’s childhood best friend, and Josh Gad as a borderline schizophrenic conspiracy theorist named Ludlow. Ludlow is so emotionally stunted that he has never matured beyond his boyhood crush on a fictional video-game action heroine called Lady Lisa. Naturally, Lady Lisa is brought to life along with all of the other video-game icons — but, instead of being rendered in blocky 8-bit graphics like all of the other characters, she inexplicably turns into a fully high-definition blonde played by Ashley Benson. At this point it should hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Ludlow (who could never manage a relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman) is ultimately allowed to keep Lady Lisa for his romantic enjoyment, because what male fantasy shouldn’t be indulged by the end, really.
Other than Sam’s climactic showdown with his digital archrival, Donkey Kong, the movie doesn’t even really work as spectacle. Director Chris Columbus never finds a way to make the premise of video games come to life as visually engaging as it could have been. Not one video-game antagonist has the slightest sense of personality (Q*bert does, but he’s not an antagonist). Think of Ghostbusters’ hilariously menacing yet cheerful Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, or even the giant Gingerbread Man in Shrek 2. Then think of this movie’s Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, or rather don’t, because why would you?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.