Review: PIXELS, Game Over From The Get-go
Summer blockbusters get the Happy Madison treatment in space invasion action-comedy Pixels, the most excruciating experience you shouldn't put yourself through this season. A thoroughly unconvincing action lead, Adam Sandler phones in yet another performance, but no one comes away clean in this disingenuous attempt to cash in on 80s nostalgia.
Regular suburban kid Sam has one special ability, he can see patterns. He's so good that he ends up at the 1982 Gaming World Championships, but loses to a smug kid named Eddie. Fast forward 33 years and Sam (Adam Sandler) is now a cable guy, while his best buddy Will (Kevin James) became the President! When aliens attack the Earth using outsized characters from 80s arcade games, Will calls in Sam to save the day, along with Josh Gad's conspiracy theorist and Sam's old nemesis, Eddie (Peter Dinklage).
At a time when some filmmakers are trying to go back to practical effects, to much delight in Mad Max: Fury Road and hopefully the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Pixels demonstrates the very worst tendencies that result from relying on VFX. Actors and extras alike make faint attempts to interact with foes that aren't there in wide shots of crowded streets that are merely superimposed with digital space invaders. The quality of computer effects is indisputably high (one should hope so, as the reported budget was $110 million) but they feel completely separate from the human world, which feels rigid and flat. Surely the production could have sprung for a real explosion once in a while or tossed a few stunt people around.
Then again, Pixels is really a comedy, or rather presents itself as one, as there is nary a chuckle to be found in this jumble of crude jokes, awkward cultural references and terrible comic timing. Sandler hums along with his trademark sarcasm and mean-spirited putdowns, but more than usual, he seems uncomfortable around all his co-stars, save perhaps for Kevin James (this is their ninth collaboration after all). His burgeoning romance with Michelle Monaghan's character is most painful of all, a clumsy pairing that never feels remotely credible.
When watching his love interest's son on his Playstation, Sam laments the state of modern gaming, which lacks patterns, as events seemingly happen without rhyme or reason. It's ironic that he would say that when the game in question is 'The Last of Us', a title that has been universally praised for its unusually strong narrative and characters, two things sorely lacking in this formula-driven abortion of a film where things truly do happen with no rhyme or reason.
It's bad enough that Sandler relies on juvenile jokes and exudes an aura of casual sexism, but it often feels like he couldn't care less about what he's doing, a touch problematic when headlining a summer tentpole. What's more, it's sad that he takes people like Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox and Sean Bean down with him in this travesty. Even Martha Stewart and Serena Williams appear, for a suggested ménage a trois with Dinklage, who for his part gamely plays the reprehensible Plant, who is based on real Donkey Kong master Billy Mitchell.
Director Chris Columbus, the veteran purveyor of beloved family fare such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first brace of Harry Potter films, doesn't bring much to the project, save perhaps for a more cohesive tone than the scattershot script, by Sandler's frequent partner-in-crime Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, deserves. The concept behind Pixels, which was originally a French short but also seems to borrow heavily from the Futurama episode 'Anthology Of Interest II', is actually a pretty good one, so it's sad to see it brought to life by people who don't give a shit.
In an era when the geeks are lording over the industry, with JJ Abrams overseeing Star Trek and Star Wars and Joss Whedon until recently shepherding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixels feels like a missed opportunity. But please don't mistake that last statement as an indication of any merit, this one's right up there with the worst of the year.