I realized as I set down to write this review that Pixels is one of those flicks that's pretty much impervious to any kind of critical analysis. Director Chris Columbus's ode to the bygone arcade culture of 1980s -- when Donkey Kong was king -- isn't egregiously offensive, but it's also not even remotely memorable. It's just aggressively mediocre, and pretty much vanishes from your brainpan as soon as the credits start rolling and you've hit your mental "reset" button on your way out the door. In that sense, I guess it fits right in with the extensive oeuvre of star Adam Sandler.
The film, about unfriendly aliens siccing beloved video game icons of the '80s on the Earth in a bid to conquer the planet, has a central conceit that's mildly diverting, but to watch Pixels is to watch a movie at war with itself. One the one hand you have Columbus (who himself occupies a hallowed place in the annals of '80s adoration thanks to such classics as The Goonies, Gremlins, and Adventures in Babysitting) trying like heck to give the outlandish core concept some sense of gravity that'll let it hang together logically and dramatically.
But whatever gravity Columbus might bring into play is immediately swallowed up by the black hole that is Adam Sandler, possessed of the unerring knack of turning almost any role he plays into a side-eyed "Can you believe this crap?" commentary on whatever project he's in at that moment (and by extension, on the folks in the audience). This time Sandler is Sandler-ing it up as Sam Brenner, video game champ as a kid, now a disgruntled employee of a Best Buy-esque big box store who spends his days tooling around Washington, DC installing AV equipment.
Meanwhile, Sam's best friend "Chewie" Cooper (Kevin James) is president of the United States. (Kevin James running for president feels like the premise of an entirely separate, better movie.) When a series of otherworldly attacks occur, the national security establishment is left dumbfounded, but Brenner recognizes that they bear a striking similarity to the arcade game Galaga, with the threat of more video game invaders on the way. And so, President Chewie enlists Brenner to save the world alongside their childhood friend Ludlow, once a precocious wunderkind, now a conspiracy-spouting weirdo played by Josh Gad.
Shoehorned into this is Sam's will-they/won't-they flirtation with Lt. Col. Violet Van Patton (Michelle Monaghan), as well as his renewed rivalry with childhood nemesis Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage, having a blast here). But of course, the main event is the one we've seen in the trailers and on all the posters: Giant, 3D versions of the 8-bit icons that played such a crucial part of so many of our childhoods. Thus, we get a larger-than-life version of Centipede playing out in the skies, and a giant, pixelated Pac-Man chowing down on big chunks of New York.
Now, there's the kernel of an interesting idea there. To be precise, there's about two-and-a-half minutes worth of driving interest, which, as it happens, is exactly the length of the 2010 short that inspired this. (Well, "inspired" might be a bridge too far when searching for descriptors...) I remember seeing the short five years ago and finding it amusing. But in taking that barest of ideas and trying to stretch it like taffy to fit a feature-length frame, all we're left with is the early realization that there wasn't enough "there" there to justify the effort.
What becomes increasingly clear as we watch our plucky band of main characters (dubbed "Arcaders" by the White House) in their custom overalls, wielding their special guns, fighting off beasties that only they have the specific skill set to catch, is how desperately Pixels wants to be Ghostbusters (heck, we even get a cameo by original GB Dan Aykroyd). However, that classic (which the same studio is currently rebooting) worked because it strove to give a reality to its fantastic world that left room for humor to emerge naturally from its characters.
Pixels, on the other hand, can never quite muster the interest or ability to make us look past the inherent ridiculousness of its premise. The script (by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling) is stuck as kind of a tonal mish-mash, neither serious enough to make the stakes feel real, nor outright humorous enough to make it feel like an over-the-top farce. All of this is a shame. I like the majority of the cast, I like the director, and there's a version of this movie that might have worked. Unfortunately, this isn't it. The whole thing just kind of makes me feel 8-bittersweet. C-
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