A film review by Craig J. Koban July 31, 2015


2015, PG-13, 105 mins.


Adam Sandler as Sam Brenner  /  Michelle Monaghan as Violet Van Patten  /  Peter Dinklage as Eddie Plant  /  Josh Gad as Ludlow Lamonsoff  /  Kevin James as President Will Cooper  /  Ashley Benson as Lady Lisa  /  Jane Krakowski as Carolyn Cooper  /  Brian Cox as Admiral Porter

Directed by Chris Columbus  /  Written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling


PIXELS is a film that’s joyously bathed in a wonderfully nostalgic haze for classic video games…at least during its opening sections. 

It’s 1982, when coin operated arcade machines – and the businesses that harbored them – reined supreme.  Before the inevitable industry crash of the early 80’s, the arcades were the social hangout destination.  It's during this time when young Sam Brenner and his pal Will Cooper discover their mutual passion for joysticks and button mashing, the former whose domination and skill in many games leads to him entering a highly lucrative arcade game world championship tournament.  The highly adept Brenner manages to make his way through multiple coin operated machines and reaches the finals, during which time he faces off against a conceited hotshot gamer named Eddie Plant in Donkey Kong, still to this day one of the hardest platform games of all-time.  Unfortunately for Brenner, he’s defeated by Plant, leaving him crestfallen.  

These early scenes in director Chris Columbus’ PIXELS were really quite alluring to me, especially considering that I was a child of the 1980’s and spent much of my youthful pursuits burning through quarters at local arcades like their was no tomorrow.  The film sort of effortlessly transported me to a time and place where supremacy in Pac-Man, Centipede, Galaga, and Donkey Kong were the ultimate bragging rights among friends.  PIXELS intuitively understands the ethereal pleasures of the arcade as a shared social pastime that’s completely and sadly extinct to contemporary adolescents, but part of its main problem, I think, is that it then flashfowards to the present and hinges itself on a decidedly out-there (make that really out-there) premise with ties to the past that the screenplay never fully capitalizes on.  For a film that wants to fully cater to the collective Gen-X past experience of playing video games in Regain-era America, PIXELS offers just superficial nostalgic thrills at best and provides very little insight and commentary on what made this period so great.  



Okay, as for the film’s “out-there” premise, check it out: It appears that during the aforementioned 1982 video game championship a capsule was launched into space containing elements of prominent pop culture including, yup, a cassette chronicling the events of the gaming championship.  Well, extraterrestrials did intercept the capsule and responded to it as a hostile act.  As a result, the aliens – believing that the capsule's seemingly innocent content was an act of war – decide to attack Earth in a highly unique manner: Their invasion fleet takes on the form of multiple arcade video games in their 1980’s pixelized forms.  Spaceships from Galaga storm through Peru, Centipede centipedes try to lay London to waste, and Pac-Mac ravenously munches his way through the streets of New York.  Initially at least, nothing seems to stop these things.  

However, before world leaders can collective say “Game Over” U.S. President Will Cooper (the same Will Cooper from the past, played as an adult by Kevin James, arguably the least plausibly cast president in movie history) tries as he can with his Chief of Staff to make sense of the chaos that is ensuing around the world.  When it becomes abundantly clear that the aliens are taking the form of the very arcade games that he and his BFFs gorged on as children, President Cooper turns to Brenner (Adam Sandler), who has emerged as a down-on-his-luck home theatre installer without much hope for the future.  Fortunately, Brenner’s remarkable arcade skills from three decades earlier makes him a key asset to the world in fighting off the deadly alien menace, leaving the aging gamer more than willing to reclaim some of his lost gamer mojo while kicking some E.T. ass.  He’s joined by his conspiracy-addicted pal Ludlow (Josh Gad) and eventually teamed up with the boy that defeated him all those years ago in Donkey Kong, Eddie (Peter Dinklage), who’s now a disgraced convict.  With special high-tech energy weapons provided by Violet (Michelle Monaghan), Brenner and company decide to use every trick and skill in their playbooks to thwart the malevolent menace from space before the Earth is destroyed. 

Okay, first of all…you either just have to go with PIXELS' ape-shit bonkers premise…or you don’t.  Having seen countless alien invasion films over the course of my life, I will concede that the film – loosely based on a wonderful 2010 short by Patrick Jean – deserves props for some spirited inventiveness.  That, and the alien beings – again, in their pixelized forms – are sort of gorgeously and evocatively rendered here (Columbus and his visual effects artists make bravura usage of eye-poppingly colorful 3D technology here).  The film has fun with envisioning Brenner and his team of “Arcaders” using everything in their arsenal to decimate their way through their enemies.  One of the film’s highlights includes the team using mini-cars as “ghosts” to careen down the streets of New York to take down the gigantic Pac-Man before he gobbles everything that stands before him in his path.  PIXELS has a manner of making even the most playful and innocent creations from video game lore somehow come off as truly menacing and hostile creatures.  Pac-Man’s own creator Toru Iwatani, during one amusing moment, learns this the hard way as he attempts to convince him to stop his attack on The Big Apple.  

Here’s the main problem with PIXELS, though: The film contains a wonderfully original premise that is mournfully populated by the likes of Adam Sandler and his past frequent collaborators (it’s also produced by Happy Madison Productions) that play stereotypical characters so lazily written and cheaply executed that you have to pinch and remind yourself that they are heroes worthy of our interest.  Sandler keeps his camera mugging schtick to a tolerable minimum here, but he nevertheless phones in a performance to the point where he barely looks emotionally invested in the stakes of the story.  James himself is delegated to playing the same obligatory “fat buffoon” character that he’s overplayed time and time again, and Josh Gad – literally screaming every line of dialogue in hopes of eliciting big laughs – is more cringe-worthily annoying than endearing.  The film then throws in superlative acting talent like Michelle Monaghan and Brain Cox, the former pathetically delegated to playing a one-note love interest to Sandler’s character and the latter so hammy and broad that you want to look away every time he speaks.  Only Dinklage himself seems to fully invest himself in the sheer lunacy of the film with his equal parts zany and go-for-broke character.  He's the only member of this borderline dazed and confused cast that's putting forth a genuine performance effort. 

Beyond the poorly and laughably written characters, the script for PIXELS – by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling – has very little wit, charm or actual humor to overcome for the embarrassingly lackluster performances.  The film is on resoundingly assured ground on a level of its candy colored visual dynamism, to be sure, but the longer PIXELS transpires the more assaultive on the senses it becomes.  Seemingly everything in the film becomes relentless and exhausting, showcasing scene after scene of swarming aliens swooping in from the skies that becomes more monotonous by the minute.  Even when the film culminates onboard the alien Mother Ship – and features Brenner going mano-a-mano against a giant sized Donkey Kong – I never felt like the stakes truly mattered.  It’s also telling when a classic game character like Q-Bert – whom eventually becomes a humanity-supporting sidekick of sorts to Brenner and his pals – has more genuine human emotions than…well…the human characters in the film. 

Again, I can certainly see the mass appeal of this material.  Like a weird and twisted hybrid of GHOSTBUSTERS and THE LAST STARFIGHTER, PIXELS tries, as it may, to be a sly and irreverent sci-fi alien invasion comedy featuring a band of misfits trying to save their beleaguered planet.  Regrettably, though, Columbus (whose past recent resume includes duds like PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS and I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER) seems to lack any type of aptitude for making a potentially inspired premise work.  This is ultimately sad, because the nostalgic factor for this film is insanely high, but beyond those nifty flashback sequences early in the story, PIXELS never fully recovers from its initial promise.  Now, if you want to see a great film involving revisiting classic video games and arcade memories of yesteryear then I highly recommend seeing THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS.  

As for PIXELS…do yourself a favor and save your quarters. 

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