Pixels is a movie.
This is the nicest thing I can say about it. It is a motion picture in the same way that any space with four walls and a window is considered a bedroom in Manhattan, and in the same way that lampreys are fish. It's not so much a film as it is an all-out assault on the senses, a middle finger to anyone with a brain. It's an open taunt, daring people (and their children) to spend money on a gaping malpractice of creativity.
"You know Space Invaders?" Sam Brenner, a former video game wunderkind played by Adam Sandler, asks Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad). "Because you're invading my space."
That's actually one of the film's better jokes. The rest tend to float around, mealy bits of sexism and archaic stereotypes in Pixels' fetid green pond of humor. Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus, written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, and produced by the slop shop that is Happy Madison, holds being aggressively lazy as its main ambition. In this world, men are literally rewarded with beautiful women as prizes, dorks are still basement dwellers living with their mothers, kids have hot moms, and Kevin James is president of the United States.
But the movie's worst sin — aside from believing that Kevin James could win a general election — is that it manages to deface the culture it wants to affectionately revere. This is supposed to be a movie about video games, the endless joy and entertainment they can bring, and how we've lost those feelings over time. But the people writing and creating this movie don't seem to care enough to do any of these ideas justice — or make a movie at all worth it.
Pixels plays on nostalgia but doesn't understand it
No video game character has affected my life like Final Fantasy's Black Mage (and his assorted permutations). Tiny in stature, draped in a blue cloak, and sporting a bent witch's hat, this little guy can churn out devastating spells that break the sky with thunder and set the screen ablaze with flames.
I remember relating to him because I, too, am fragile and not built for hand-to-hand combat. My parents wouldn't allow me to play during the week, but they did allow me to stay up and play for as long as I wanted on Friday and Saturday nights. When I think of those Friday nights, I remember drinking sugary sodas until my teeth tingled, staying up to cast one more spell, falling asleep with the game still buzzing, beating one last boss, and waiting all week to do it all over again.
So Pixels should have been an easy sell to me.
Yet after the initial flutters of joy in seeing Pac-Man blown up to the size of a house, I fell increasingly numb as I realized this film had no interest in exploring the magic of video games. Pixels knows Pac-Man will make its audience members feel things (nostalgia, awe, happiness), but it isn't interested in what those emotions are or why they exist.
Instead, the characters and video games are shoved into an overcooked storyline where aliens picked up a transmission of our video games and took it as a threat. They weaponize our nostalgia, setting video game characters and loose as destructive forces on Earth. This isn't a bad premise — video games have often reacted to and reflected upon some of the darker parts of human existence, and it would be easy to see how an alien race could pick up on that.
Yet Pixels doesn't.
The film is intellectually lazy, and yet its plot is still somehow overwrought. No real logic centers the weaponized video game idea — Sandler and the rest of the earthlings play good characters in their first battle (Centipede) and bad (Pac-Man's ghosts) in another; there are cheat codes, but no explanation as to how to enter them. And the film is based on a bizarre plot hole: Why would aliens so powerful not just wipe out the planet instead of challenging its inhabitants to video game contests?
Because our military isn't trained in video games (despite flying drones), it's up to old-school gamers, now fully grown man-children Brenner (Sandler), Lamonsoff (Gad), President Will Cooper (James), and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) to save the day. (At moments, watching Gad and Dinklage, you almost have to wonder just what sort of leverage Sandler has over them.)
Even when dealing with its heroes, Pixels is a lifeless letdown. These men are part of the dated joke that video game players live with their moms and are unattractive, sexually deprived creeps. It fails to recognize that we live in an age where geekdom and video games are mainstream, indelible parts of pop culture. Instead, Pixels is content to wallow in the man-baby fantasy of what someone who's never played video games thinks of the losers ("LOSERS! amirite!!!!?") who do.
This might also be one of the most mind-bogglingly sexist movies ever created
One of the rules in Pixels is that when the humans win a video game battle (it's best two out of three), they are rewarded with a trophy. One of these trophies is Q-Bert, the trumpet-snouted, orange being who was somehow the hero of an '80s video game. Q-Bert ends up being one of the best actors in the movie, which says a lot since he basically snorts cheese balls and urinates himself.
But the most startling thing that happens to Q-Bert is that the character eventually turns into a beautiful, silent (she does not speak) female ninja warrior (played by Ashley Benson), so that Lamonsoff is not left without a girlfriend at the end of the film.
That turns out to be the basic premise of the film: Women are trophies made to be won.
Serena Williams (in a cameo), Martha Stewart (also in said cameo), Jane Krakowski, and Michelle Monaghan all appear in this film as objects of the men's desires. They are all severely underused, and are, with the exception of Krakowski who plays the first lady, won by the men by the end of the film. Krakowski, a gifted comedic actress (you might know her best as 30 Rock's Jenna), is given a paltry number of lines, two of which are devoted to asking Brenner how attractive Monaghan's character is.
It all makes you wonder how desperate a time it is for women in Hollywood to sign on to play these parts.
That's depressing, but disappointment is the underlying theme in Pixels. This movie could have been great. That moment of joy from seeing the video game characters of your childhood making a big-screen debut and glowing like radioactive candy is real — before it reveals itself to be just one moment in an endless trickle of listlessness.