Review: ‘Pixels’ falls apart before Adam Sandler is even a factor in things


Chris Columbus appears to be at war with the Happy Madison team at almost every moment in this film, and unfortunately, inertia eventually wins. By now, you have to be aware of the premise for the film. Sony has done a tremendous job of selling the idea. Aliens, after being exposed to our video games from the '80s, have decided to invade the Earth, seeing the games as a challenge of war. They send those familiar game icons against us, and three former arcade champions are forced to defend the Earth using their arcade skills.

Fine. I have no problem with the idea. I even like the basic character set-up. These arcade champions, treated like young gods in the opening flashback of the film, all find themselves adrift as adults. Brenner (Adam Sandler) is working on the movie's version of the Geek Squad from Best Buy. Ludlow (Josh Gad) has become a conspiracy lunatic and is still a virgin. And the movie's riff on “Fistful Of Quarters” bad guy Billy Mitchell, the hyper-blustery Eddie (Peter Dinklage) is in jail, and deservedly. And Brenner's best friend Cooper? The guy who was a better cheerleader than a video gamer? Well, now he's the President of the United States, which is why he calls in his best friend.

I can almost imagine how this would play with a different lead, and that drives me crazy to say. I have no problem with Sandler in an overall sense. I've liked some of his films, disliked others, and when he's used by a director who pushes him in any way, things get interesting. I flat-out adore “Punch Drunk Love,” and not despite Sandler's presence but because of it. I love that Paul Thomas Anderson saw this rage that drives much of Sandler's comic persona and he dug deeply into it, making a movie about a man so crippled by rage that he can barely speak, barely make eye contact. It's a great performance, full stop. I think he's really good in “Funny People” as well, playing a riff on the way the public thinks about him. When we saw all those posters at George's house, and the various clips from those movies, it felt like Sandler was telling us that he's well aware of how ridiculous many of those films are.

And then a year later, he made “Jack and Jill,” so I have no idea how self-aware he really is.

Let's remove Adam Sandler from the equation completely, though. The easy response to a negative review of this film is, “Well, you don't like Adam Sandler, so of course you don't like the movie.” That's really not the case. I have a problem with the movie's script, credited to Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, that is so fundamental that it derailed everything else, and when that happens, I find myself endlessly frustrated. In this case, what the film gets right is the opening, where we get a glimpse of the kids in their element. Chris Columbus remembers the '80s well enough to get the little stuff right. When we see the arcade culture of the movie, that's the way I remember arcades. Standing in line for the hottest games, the way crowds would form when someone was on a great run… that stuff is pretty solid. We see how each of them has a particular specialty as a player, and when it turns into a showdown between Eddie and Brenner, Brenner gets beaten on “Donkey Kong,” and of course, screenwriting rules would dictate that the film will eventually hinge on Brenner having to play a game of “Donkey Kong” to save the world, right?

Here's my problem, then. When Brenner, Eddie, and Ludlow are recruited, it is because they're the best arcade generation players ever. And for that to pay off, they need to be actually playing the games. When Columbus stages a giant-scale game of “Centipede” or “Pac-Man,” the games are played using “light cannons” or cars that have been adapted to a special purpose. While I understand that the players have memorized the way the games behave and the patterns involved, there is nothing in their past that would prepare them to drive specialized cars around a city or fight a full-scale military battle. And when that game of “Donkey Kong” finally comes back around, it's a giant full-scale girder set-up, and they're running and climbing and jumping. That is such a wildly different skill set than playing the game on a screen that I just don't understand the premise anymore. It's like hiring the world's best volleyball players to run the Giant Hadron Collider. One has nothing to do with the other. I am flat-out awesome at playing the “Arkham” series of Batman games, but if you asked me to suit up and actually go beat the hell out of a room full of 40 heavily-armed bad guys, I am going to end up dead in about 30 seconds.

I'll give Columbus this: in 3D, there are some very cool visual beats, particularly in the “Centipede” sequence. But beyond that, I can't recommend the film at all. I think Sandler's miscasting leads to a real deficit of energy at the center of the film, and then the conceptual misfire is so dire that I just don't know what to say beyond that. Michelle Monaghan is utterly squandered, and I don't like most of the choices they make about her relationship with Sandler, which feels like a function of formula, not anything based on any recognizable human form of attraction. The nature of the aliens is too vague to be fun, and there are some big jokes, like a running thread of Q*bert jokes that pay off in a profoundly disturbing sex gag, that mar this being a family experience. That would be the most appropriate crowd for it, because I suspect kids will like the game stuff. If you're determined to see it, you will, but I thought it was a profound dud.

“Pixels” is in theaters on Friday.