You know, the genre label of “comedy” is no excuse for laziness. If anything, the creation of a good comedy film should be a task of some precision and thought; you’ve got to keep the laughs coming, you’ve got to invest the viewer in the situations they’re laughing at and with. I’m just going to drop the pretext and tell you the deal. Pixels is a film that on a great number of occasions just throws its hands up and all but says to the audience, “We don’t care. Our jokes, and the plot on which they hang, don’t have to make sense. Now laugh.” The film relies on mean-spirited “humor”, hackneyed schtick, lots of shouting, and even more half-assed randomness. It ain’t good. And now that the cards are on the table, the plot.
Back in 1982, then-young video game whizzes Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant (a slumming Peter Dinklage) competed in an arcade game championship – in the same year NASA sent out a probe containing elements of popular culture including games such as “Centipede” and “Pac-Man”. In the here and now, aliens have misinterpreted the games as declarations of war, and have come to invade the earth with partially-rendered nasties taken from these classic games. It’s up to the 1982 arcade competitors, plus Sam’s love interest Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), to use their retro gaming skills to save the world from certain pixellation.
Honestly, pixellation would be the ideal scenario here. I say this because the film’s bad, sure, but also because the visual effects of the arcade game characters is quite effective… And in those few words I’ve exhausted the film’s unequivocally positive qualities. Granted, there are a couple performances that could have worked with a different modulation. Dinklage commits to his performance as a maverick gamer, and given (much) better jokes his character could have taken off. Brian Cox also lends the film a little class in a relatively decent role as a military blowhard, but in time his role is reduced to shouting in a desperate bid for a laugh, before he’s dumped from the film entirely. Other miscellaneous sins of Pixels: Adam Sandler’s lead performance is one of the most bored-looking I’ve ever seen, filled with inert schtick and anti-jokes. The film has no understanding of dramatic structure, with the heroes-on-the-ropes section of the story reduced to something like two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them minutes. The cameos are determined not by what would be funny but by who happened to be available to shill.
I ask you: Who is this movie for? The jokes are pitched at the preteen level of sophistication, and yet the entire selling point of the film is nostalgia for 1980s pop culture. So in the end the target demographic seems to be middle-aged folks who have warm memories of arcade games and who have the entertainment standards of their 10-year-old selves. I’m sure Sony also felt Pixels would appeal to the “nerd demographic”, but I can tell you that the portrayal of nerds in the movie is, well, not so great! Josh Gad’s super-coded nerdy Ludlow Lamonsoff character is representative of this.
Ludlow is loud, obnoxious, “hilariously” socially awkward, an off-the-wall conspiracy theorist, a literal basement-dweller, an obsessive fetishist of an 8-bit video game character, a man prevented from being arrested for a variety of petty crimes only because he ends up being too inept to carry them out, and finally, a walking cringe-worthy gay joke until the movie decides that it doesn’t want to go that way and instead serve him up a wife who is literally referred to as a “trophy” and is incapable of speech. We’re supposed to care about this annoying worse-than-stereotyped caricature and his ridiculous shenanigans? It leaves you wondering if the studio executives wanted to bet on how successful they could make a film that alienates its main demographics.
That’s not to mention alienating still others while it’s at it; for one thing, the man-child characters gawk at women and are sadly rewarded for it in incredibly elaborate ways, as I allude to above. This trophy wife payoff is two things: probably the worst thing I’ve seen in a movie this year so far, and a spoiler. But come on, this is Pixels. You shouldn’t give one crap about getting spoiled! Okay, so, there are two things set up early on. One, since childhood and through the present, Ludlow has an extreme infatuation with the (fictional) arcade game warrior woman Lady Lisa, and two, as the humans win various game-based challenges the aliens throw at them, they get “trophies”; one of the trophies is Q*bert. Now in the final battle, Ludlow is fighting the pixel aliens on the ground and of course Lady Lisa appears and starts to fight him. For no reason, she turns from pixels to a flesh-and-blood person. For no reason other than Ludlow declaring his love for her, she drops her swords as she’s about to deal him the killing blow. For no reason, she betrays her comrades and fights with the humans, until the other heroes beat the aliens at the source and Lisa enters pixel oblivion like all the other video game characters… except Q*bert. He’s a trophy you see, and the humans get to keep trophies. For no reason, Q*bert (who is a character who has interacted with the humans for a while and has a personality and identity as Q*bert) morphs into Lisa. For no reason, Lisa agrees to marry Ludlow on the spot. And in a post-credits scene, Lisa and Ludlow have had children: little baby Q*bert children, donchaknow. As I write this, I can’t believe someone came up with this tripe and thought it would fly. Sure it’s offensive, but it’s so lazily offensive. Every beat of this subplot represents the movie simply shrugging its shoulders and declaring its apathy for logic, entertainment value and good taste. It just doesn’t care, and when the movie doesn’t care, why should we credit it as anything other than a waste of time?
Just by the law of averages you might chuckle once or twice throughout the 105-minute runtime, but at the end of the day, this soulless Sony shit isn’t worth the trouble it took to produce. Just edit together the visual effects into a sizzle reel and call it an editing job well done. Pixels is bad, like replace-one-of-the-main-character’s-love-interest-with-an-inflatable-sex-doll-and-virtually-nothing-changes bad. It’s a lazy product, and Sony willfully ignored that when it comes to products the greatest selling point it can have is quality. 1/10.
P.S.: Dr. Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man, is a character in the film, as can seen in the trailers. The part is played by an actor by the name of Denis Akiyama. Now, the funny thing is, the real Dr. Iwatani is in Pixels, cameoing as a repairman. I’m sure the reasonable explanation for Dr. Iwatani not playing himself is that he probably doesn’t speak English. In any case, it’s a notable little factoid.