While many modern video games are arguably works of art, Adam Sandler’s movie about video games is inarguably trash.
It’s no surprise that Sandler’s latest fails to hit the mark. His roster of recent films, from “Grown Ups” to “Blended,” consists entirely of flubs, and “Pixels” is no different. The movie features a lame-brained story that botches an interesting concept, with few laughs and blatant sexism.
In “Pixels,” Adam Sandler plays a down-on-his-luck, underachieving schmuck who gets a shot at greatness and a chance to win the love of an attractive woman with his sensitive personality. His character’s essentially the same character from “Happy Gilmore,” “Mr. Deeds,” “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” and several others. Really, the only difference is the character’s name — in this film, the guy is called Sam Brenner.
As a kid in 1982, Brenner played in a video game competition and suffered a crippling defeat during the final round. At the same competition, NASA recorded videos of the games that were played, stored them in a time capsule containing other pieces of Earth culture and launched the capsule into space to make contact with aliens.
When aliens find the capsule, they misinterpret the video game recordings as a declaration of war and attack Earth by mimicking arcade games, such as “Centipede,” “Pac-Man,” and “Donkey Kong.” The U.S. President (Kevin James), a childhood friend of Brenner, calls upon him to coordinate a defense strategy that involves defeating the challenges posed by each game.
Sandler phones in his portrayal of Brenner, recycling bits of his prior roles. He plays the straight man of the story, rarely drawing laughs himself and reacts to the ridiculous actions of others.
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see James play someone who is mostly competent. There’s irony inherent in casting Paul Blart as the Commander in Chief, and James uses that to fuel a subtly funny performance.
The standout of the movie is Peter Dinklage, who plays Eddie Plant, a tough-guy gamer who beat Brenner in the 1982 competition and returns to help fight the aliens. Dinklage imbues Plant with an egotistical personality, which, combined with his short stature, is used to a genuinely humorous effect.
For a story based on a clever concept, “Pixels” is terribly rote. There’s nothing dramatic about Sandler overcoming his naysayers with ease and never truly failing, and there’s nothing interesting about the formulaic romance which blossoms between Brenner and Lt. Colonel Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan). “Pixels” never is as inventive as its concept demands, tackling the subject of a video game character invasion like a watered-down version of “Independence Day.”
Director Chris Columbus fails to imaginatively stage the action sequences. The “Centipede” sequence is a brief shoot-em up battle and the “Pac-Man” fight is a tensionless car chase. The “Donkey Kong” climax fares a little better at challenging the heroes, but it’s still overcome far too easily.
Although “Pixels” is entirely innocuous, its blatant sexism is hard to ignore. The female characters in the film are treated as rewards for the good guys’ — emphasis on the guys — hard work. One character, a video game superheroine, clad in a skimpy red outfit that defects from the aliens’ side, literally has no personality and is dubbed a “trophy” for Josh Gad’s character, Ludlow Lamonsoff, a walking conspiracy theorist cliché.
“Pixels” boasts some impressive special effects and provokes some laughs, mostly from Dinklage and its numerous celebrity cameos. But there’s an underlying laziness to the whole production, and it ends on a whimper rather than a bang. Unlike the groundbreaking arcade games of the 1980s, “Pixels” is content to play it safe.
Running Time: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13