Somehow Adam Sandler’s new movie “Pixels” managed to overcome absolutely lethal reviews to post a decent opening weekend at the box office – the word most commonly bandied about in the entertainment press on Monday is “disappointing,” not “catastrophic.” Sandler, whose films are almost always about lovable slobs overcoming arrogant snobs, must be delighted.
Besides Sandler’s star power and faithful fan base, the other big draw of “Pixels” is 80s nostalgia. Aliens found a video recording of an early-80s arcade-game competition, interpreted it as a declaration of war, and whipped up an army of giant solid-light re-creations of video game adversaries to invade the Earth. Old favorites such as Centipede, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong figure prominently.
Do the kids who make up most of Hollywood’s target audience even know who these characters are? Do they have any warm feelings about the games? Cinemaphiles often turn back to silent films and masterpieces from Hollywood’s Golden Age to follow the evolution of motion pictures, but do videogame players do that – weathering the crude graphics and brutal gameplay of quarter-gobblers coded before they were born to gain fresh insight on the origins of modern game blockbusters like Halo?
It was a huge gamble to build a movie around nostalgic appeal to the grandparents of the video game generation. In a way, “Pixels” could be viewed as the only big summer film to be explicitly pitched at an older audience. If you’re part of that audience, there is some fun to be had during the big finale, spotting the less well-known game characters who pop in to trash Washington.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do much else with its premise, or the opportunity to serve as nostalgia blast for the Eighties. (It seems like a missed opportunity that Sandler didn’t round up a posse of Eighties stars to play the middle-aged characters in the film, or at least drop by for some uncredited cameos.)
“Pixels” began life as a short film, devoid of much in the way of plot or context, that showed classic videogame characters destroying a city. That’s really all the feature-length version is, except it’s padded out with a goofy plot, goofy context, and the latest iteration of Sandler’s stock slobs-vs.-snobs story. This motif is forced on the movie with, essentially, a single line of dialogue, in which Sandler’s future love interest rebuffs his advances by declaring herself too good to canoodle with a lowly Best Buy-style electronics installation technician. He spends the rest of the movie calling her a snob, and taking childish glee in tormenting all the other arrogant snobs who think they’re better than him, just because they’re brilliant scientists, the commanders of elite special forces units, or members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The movie isn’t quite self-aware enough to have fun with the absurdity of that theme – the highly-qualified snobs are, without exception, jerks and fools Sandler must save from annihilation – or even with its sci-fi premise. It has little to say about the Eighties, aside from name-checking both real and digital stars of the era, from Hall & Oates to the “Where’s the beef?” lady from the Wendy’s ads. It doesn’t really have much to say about videogames, aside from an interesting observation Sandler makes to a kid about how, in his day, gaming was actually a social endeavor, because you had to bike over to the local arcade and hang out with your friends while awaiting your turn on the Galaga machine. It would have been great to bring in either real or fictionalized videogame pioneers to help out with the war against the aliens and offer some thoughts about how dramatically they hobby they created has changed, but the only such character to appear in the story is the guy who created Pac-Man, and he’s only there for a joke that has already been given away in the trailers.
The other missed opportunity in “Pixels” is that it’s not even remotely faithful to its own premise. Saving the day actually has very little to do with the main characters’ antediluvian arcade-game skills. The aliens’ life-sized versions of the games don’t even follow the rules consistently (they seem to have completely missed the point of Pac-Man, although it leads to the most clever and exciting sequence in the film.) A squad of Navy SEALS somehow becomes incapable of even the most basic marksmanship or fire discipline, or following the very simple instructions Sandler gave them to play one of the games, requiring him to pick up a light-gun and save the day. Being good at playing Donkey Kong would not, by any stretch of the imagination, make an aging nerd physically capable of actually jumping over life-sized digital flaming barrels. Sandler himself comments on how he’s the only character who seems weirded out by the nonsensical, ever-changing rules of the alien menace.
“Pixels” works better than it should because some of Sandler’s insult comedy is still funny enough to make a Friday-night theater audience laugh out loud (even if he looks increasingly tired and grumpy delivering it) and because the original short film was a viral hit for good reason. It is funny and nostalgic to watch those iconic videogame characters, born in an era when characters had to capture the public mind with just a few blocks of light, and a storyline conjured largely by the cabinet art on those quarter-eating machines – come to life and tear the modern world to pieces.
Sadly, it comes up short of being the new “Ghostbusters” it so obviously wants to be, right down to a benediction delivered during the opening scene by Dan Aykroyd himself. The fantasy world of “Ghostbusters” made sense – the scenario, without the comedy hijinks of our lovable misfit heroes, would have been a rather horrible Lovecraftian nightmare about elder gods returning to destroy the world, heralded by the spirits of the risen dead (and aided and abetted by the EPA!) If the bad guys hadn’t been so serious, it wouldn’t have been so much fun watching the heroes make them look foolish. It also helped that, despite their goofball personalities and sarcastic humor, the Ghostbusters had actual skills that helped them find their heroic calling.
“Pixels” is almost like a spoof of “Ghostbusters,” or a sendup of the way a drunken dimwit manages to save the world while piloting an advanced jet fighter after just a few hours of instruction in “Independence Day,” a film “Pixels” visually quotes. Mostly it’s a room-temperature chug of videogame nostalgia for children of the Eighties. Even served at room temperature, it’s got a little kick. You and I have unfinished business, Donkey Kong.