As someone to whom the idea of giant 80s video game characters attacking Earth actually sounded quite fun, I thought that if Pixels was going to work for anybody, it might work for me. But this action comedy from Christopher Columbus is a soulless experience. Characters talk repeatedly about the “patterns” one has to learn in order to beat old arcade games, and this film feels rigidly bound to a pattern of its own: that of the only-just-passable Hollywood comedy.
Adam Sandler, playing the same slightly-put-upon-and-schlubby-but-ultimately-quite-charming-and-attractive-to-the-ladies role he’s got down pat, stars as Sam Brenner, whose only real skill is that he was extremely good at arcade games when he was young. This is detailed in an introduction in which we see him coming second in a national video game tournament to ‘the Fireblaster’, an obnoxious kid who is later played, in grown-up version, by Peter Dinklage. A time capsule, including footage of the tournament, is then fired off into space and, unbeknownst to humanity, intercepted by a race of aliens who interpret it as a declaration of war. The aliens, who obviously possess extremely advanced tech, for some reason then decide to invade Earth by challenging its inhabitants to take part in life-size recreations of video games.
If that all sounds silly and incomprehensible, that’s because it is. But hey, this is a comedy – silly and incomprehensible shouldn’t really matter. Except Pixels is so average for most of its runtime that we’re left to mull over how little sense it makes, particularly when it deigns to try to explain what’s going on. Michelle Monaghan co-stars as Lieutenant Violet van Patten, whose division of the military develops weapons to fight the invading aliens, which Sam and his old buddy Ludlow, a borderline-psychotic conspiracy theorist played with scene-stealing vim by Josh Gad, will use in the action scenes. Monaghan is saddled with the must-fall-for-Adam-Sandler role, and she does what she can, but it’s a thankless and underwritten part.
The film’s action sequences, to give credit where credit is due, are efficiently done. There’s nothing overly memorable or thrilling, but there are a couple of nice touches, and the film does have an affection for the arcade characters it summons up, including an adorable Q*bert who becomes a sort-of sidekick. There’s also a nice blocky pixel effect when things touched by the invaders explode and fall apart. Indeed, the special effects overall are competently done, although the 3D is largely pointless.
There are one or two funny jokes in here but they mostly serve to remind us (as does a brief cameo from Dan Akroyd) that there are funnier films we could be watching. Josh Gad at least tries to inject some fight into proceedings, shrieking until the audience concedes a smile. Sandler isn’t awful as Sam, but it’s another of his sleepwalking roles: he doesn’t look like he’s really trying to do anything except finish the film. I also wan ted more from Peter Dinklage, who tries hard but is saddled with pretty average material. The less said about Kevin James as the President of the United States the better. Game over.