I was expecting nothing but the worst from Pixels. Having stayed away from any Adam Sandler movie since Funny People (you can read about my feelings towards that movie and Sandler’s career here), I braced myself for what had to be one of the worst movie-going experiences in recent memory. Imagine my surprise when Pixels didn’t turn out to be a cinematic abomination, but rather a run-of-the-mill slice of big budget boredom. It’s always nice when a film exceeds your expectations.
To be fair, there’s actually tiny bits of goodness cowering underneath the shadow of this nostalgia baiting beast of a movie. The cartoonish style that brings the alien video game characters to life isn’t awful. In fact, when the final attack takes place, there’s a simple joy to be had in seeing the utter chaos these characters unleash. With a better script, this is an idea that could have possibly worked.
Some minor amount of praise needs to be lobbed at Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage. Though they never had a chance at elevating the film due to the material they were given, their personalities and comic sensibilities manage to wrangle a handful of chuckles out of their characters.
That’s about all I can give Pixels as the majority of the film is filled with the Sandler-isms that people have come to abhor (annoying product placement (I’ve never been more ashamed to be a Yoo-hoo drinker than I was when I watched Pixels), terrible needle drops on the soundtrack, unbelievable and undercooked romances, mean-spirited jabs that are unjustified due to them being unfunny, and a sleepwalking performance from Sandler), but they seem tamer than usual, probably due to Pixels needing to work as the broadest possible entertainment. And though all of those elements do allow for copious amounts of criticism, the biggest fault that befalls Pixels is that the script seems to care more about being an Adam Sandler movie than it does a genre-blending comedy a la Ghostbusters. The big battles and ridiculous premise seem secondary to the weak attempts at generating laughs and focusing on the unforgivably uninteresting characters.
And boy, are these characters uninteresting. Besides Sandler’s nerd-turned-hero (who he plays with his all too familiar style of auto-pilot acting), the worst offenders are Kevin James (fun fact: this is the first thing I’ve ever watched Kevin James in, proving that you can judge a book by its cover sometimes) and Michelle Monaghan. James makes Jai Courtney look like Daniel Day-Lewis, bringing nothing but blandness and unsuccessful buffoonery to his portrayal of a heavily disliked President of the United States. But, I expect nothing more from Paul Blart. It’s Michelle Monaghan and her character that threaten to push Pixels into the territory of the despicable. Having to watch the True Detective alumni absorb cruel jokes from Sandler and then go googly-eyed for him is disheartening. Their entire relationship is incredibly one-sided and demeaning, further sunk by Monaghan’s uncaring performance. I can only hope that her paycheck for this gig was a sizable one, and that’s why her performance is so distracted.
And it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the entire movie is propelled by cheaply preying on the nostalgia of parents who brought their brood along to the theater. Besides the video game characters, the aliens also send televised messages to Earth in the form of manipulated footage of 80s celebrities. It’s the laziest way to incite a reaction in the audience, and is easily as unsubstantial as any Family Guy non-sequitur.
I thought Pixels was going to make me temporarily hate video games, but instead it just left me numb and uninvolved. It’s not the travesty people seem to be making it out to be. It’s simply subpar on its way to being terrible. It’s a shame that other films that smartly embrace the aesthetics or sentiments of video games (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edge of Tomorrow, Crank, Speed Racer) probably won’t equal the box office success of Pixels. On the plus side, I can now say I’ve seen a Kevin James movie so that I never have to see another one again. Silver linings, folks. Look for’em.