Pixels probably isn’t as abhorrent as headlines might have you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic. In fact, it’s very problematic. Here’s the rub, Adam Sandler stars as Sam Brenner, an unmotivated schlub who was an elite gamer as a child, but more or less squandered his potential. We’re told often how smart he is, but Sandler turns in the same performance he does in lost every movie these days. Sam gets pulled into a global crisis by his life-long friend, Cooper.
Cooper is played by Kevin James who is inexplicably the President of the United States. When Cooper recognizes the pattern of a mysterious attack as a formation from Galaga, he calls upon his old pal to help him put a stop to the crisis. And there we have it, Kevin James’ character is President for convenience of plot, how else would a Joe Schmoe like Sandler’s character get involved and gain access to the situation room? Oh yeah, he wouldn’t. This early, transparent plot device pinpoints the greatest weakness of the film: It’s lazy. A convenient friendship with the President is the first of many such choices that all add up to a film that hopes the audience just won’t notice.
The film attributes Sam’s lack of ambition to his loss at the 1982 video game championships to his nemesis, Eddie, played by Peter Dinklage. See Sam and Eddie were not just masters capable of taking one game to the kill screen, they could do it with all the games. Ask Steve Wiebe how feasible that must be.
This uncanny gaming prowess is problematic elsewhere too. It makes a certain amount of sense that given a light cannon Sam and his fellow childhood gamer pal, Ludlow (Josh Gad), could replicate their success at Centipede by standing below the alien pixels and shooting them. Maybe, but over the course of the film they also acquire the skills of wheelmen as they drive cars around a Pac-Man‘d New York and athletic prowess as they leap over barrels and scuttle up ladders in Donkey Kong. Sorry, button mashing and pattern recognition aren’t going to get you there.
The most troubling bit about Pixels is that it seems content to assume the audience won’t ask for logic or a well-crafted story as long as enough of their favorite characters and games get trotted out. Is Qbert adorable? Absolutely! Does his presence negate the shortcomings of the basic building blocks of this film? Absolutely not.
Adam Sandler and his merry band of companions know what they’re doing and they play at it as well as they ever have, but it’s all grown tired. And what’s worse, a perfectly promising idea for a film was wasted as a result. For better-executed video game-laced adventure look to Ernst Cline’s book, Ready Player One, or the animated film, Wreck It Ralph.