05th Aug2015

‘Pixels’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Jane Krakowski, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Ashley Benson | Written by Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling | Based on the short film by Patrick Jean | Directed by Chris Columbus


During my bathroom trip following a screening of Pixels, a group of what I can only term lads yelled across the room about how good a time they’d just had. This quickly turned, as it so often does in the men’s room, into playful jibes about one another’s penis size and other things I tried to tune out as my shy bladder receded ever further into my body. One of the group even went so far as to sidle up to his friend still using the urinal – leaning on me in the process – in some kind of bonding ritual I’m not quite familiar with. Their shenanigans complete and urinal cakes marinated, the gang retired from the restroom. As they left one of them said, “Lol.”

This entire experience was less embarrassing than the movie I had just seen.

Pixels is less a film than it is an exercise in empty nostalgia. Even the premise – aliens attempt to invade Earth, taking the form of 1980s videogame characters that were beamed into space for plot reasons – is ripped straight from an episode of Futurama broadcast over 10 years ago. The schlubby losers eventually tasked with bringing down the armada are led by none other than Adam Sandler as Brenner a guy who possesses a supernatural talent for beating arcade games and acting a lot like Adam Sandler. The film begins with a flashback to Brenner attending an arcade opening with a friend in 1982 and discovering his ‘gift’. He quickly goes on to compete in a national contest but is beaten by a cocky rival during a final match of Donkey Kong.

Cut to 2015 and Brenner’s a baggy shorts-wearing gadget installer, his best mate Cooper is the President of the United States (Kevin James as a strangely apolitical George W. Bush parody) and his former rival Eddie (Peter Dinklage in an unflattering, moustache-twirling turn as a villain) is in jail. Things could be worse, but Brenner doesn’t seem to much care about which direction his life takes as long as he can keep a job and hang out with President James, much like the actor himself. After a potentially romantic rendezvous with divorcee Violet (Michelle Monaghan, who deserves better than the insipid, puerile script ever gives her) goes awry, both characters are called to the White House to investigate an apparent attack by Space Invaders and boy do sparks fly.

It swiftly becomes clear that their attackers are not Iranian or Russian in nature but extraterrestrial – and the military (represented by Sean Bean and Brian Cox) doesn’t have a clue how to deal with it. So it’s up to Brenner and his motley crew, joined by a reluctant Violet and Josh Gad as the emotionally disturbed loner Ludlow, whose creepy and unhealthy behaviour towards women is treated as a punchline (and eventually rewarded), to fire CGI blobs at other CGI blobs that look like old game characters.

Unlike that episode of Futurama, Pixels gives no personality to the aliens and their creations, presumably in the hope that whatever personal connection audience members have with the games represented (Centipede, Qbert, Pac-Man) is enough to sustain the drama. I don’t know why anyone would ever think that would work, this film ostensibly being aimed at children. It’s hard to imagine a twelve-year old being excited for an Adam Sandler movie in which Qbert is a sidekick and the climax is set inside a level from a game that’s over three decades old, but maybe I’m out of touch. After all, this film couldn’t possibly be for adults, with its juvenile. Insult-based humour and prehistoric gender politics, could it? Actually, that’s demeaning to children; Pixels doesn’t seem to be aimed at anyone other than the man-children starring in it.

Are we supposed to root for Brenner, the listless jerk who calls people names when he doesn’t get his way, and hope that he gets to make out with the only woman with more than three lines at the end? The characters gain trophies when they win a ‘game’ – like Qbert – and by the end of Pixels it’s clear that the film’s stance on women is exactly the same. They’re something to be won, possessed and coerced into having threesomes with complete strangers, which is a disturbing shift in tone for a family movie. I feel for Ashley Benson, who plays a virtually-realised version of Ludlow’s fantasy woman and exists solely to stab bad guys, wear sexy armour and make babies. Bechdel wept.

It’s rare that I find absolutely nothing to recommend in a film, but this is a bland, cynical effort trading off people’s goodwill towards their childhood memories (some of which may even involve Sandler). Worst of all, it was made by people who should know much, much better. Then again the screening I attended had people rolling in the aisles, so perhaps they already do.

Pixels is released in the UK on Wednesday August 12th.


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