Pixels began life as a short film in 2010 by French director Patrick Jean. It featured videogame pixels emerging out of a TV to attack a city and take over the world. It was simple, nicely visual and, as is the case with good short films, short and sweet. But surely the added benefit of 103 more minutes and a budget of $88 million should mean that that simple idea can really be built up to something amazing.
Except no, no it doesn’t.
In 1982 Sam Brenner came second in a videogame world championship. Now Sam (played by Adam Sandler) hasn’t made much of his life, making his living installing televisions. When a mysterious force resembling those classic videogames starts attacking the Earth Sam’s friend Will (Kevin James), who is now the President of the United States, calls him in. With the help of another childhood friend Ludlow (Josh Gad) and the person who beat Sam in that world championship Eddie (Peter Dinklage), the group of gamers must play the games for real to save the planet.
The main thing I will say straight away is that the visuals do deliver from the source material. The attacking video game characters look great, and the pixelated effects work. Even the 3D doesn’t feel as intrusive as I usually find it. I will also happily admit that the live action Pac-Man set piece, which features the characters in cars as the “ghosts” chasing down a city-destroying Pac-Man, is genuinely fun and entertaining. The cameos of classic characters are funny as well, particularly Q*bert and the Duck Hunt dog.
The problem is the rest of the film.
Despite not being particularly long it takes ridiculously long to get going for its simple premise.The 80s-set section isn’t so bad, and I would say has a certain level of charm to it, but once we’re in the present it just drags. Then in-between the visually interesting game-playing scenes the pace then screeches to a halt for really forced comedy, really awkward dialogue, and possibly the flattest attempt at romance I’ve seen on screen for a while. Michelle Monaghan and Adam Sandler have so little chemistry, either romantic or comedic. We’re introduced to her as a barely together divorcee crying in a closet about how her life has turned out. When Sandler attempts to kiss her and she, understandably, rebuffs him, he accuses her of being a snob and framing her as the one in the wrong. Because what woman doesn’t want to make out with someone they don’t know moments after meeting him? Then we find out that she is a high ranking military official, but continues to bicker with Sandler like a child. There is also a scene where she all but swoons at Sandler having brushed his teeth. And they say romance is dead. I suppose I should be grateful that there isn’t a shocked “you mean girls play video games too?” attempt at a joke. I take the victories where I can.
The rest of the characters fare little better. Kevin James' president is a constant source of media ridicule whilst trying to connect to his wife (a criminally underused Jane Krakowski from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and Josh Gad’s purpose in the film seems to be to make Sandler look nicer and more normal by comparison. One scene with Gad yelling at a group of soldiers was so cringe-worthy I almost folded over in my seat. He is also the focus of the most eye-rolling of subplots. From the beginning it is established that Gad’s character has an unhealthy obsession with a female ninja named Lady Lisa. When Lisa shows up in the big final attack (strangely less pixelated than anyone else) he redeems her with the Power of Love and she becomes a literal trophy for him whilst never even saying a word. It’s lazy and crass and just isn’t funny.
It also kills me a little to say that Peter Dinklage isn’t the scene-stealer I was hoping him to be. There’s a bit of a laugh to be had in him clearly being modelled on real life video game champion Billy Mitchell, but he suffers from the sub-par writing just like everyone else. Said writing also falls into un-funny generalising jokes like “British people sound weird” and “black people like Obama”. The biggest laugh in the film for me was probably Sean Bean’s army general getting civilians to clear an area by saying that a beer commercial is being filmed. However then him and Brian Cox are the butt of a “hey, two guys are hugging, that’s funny, right?” moment. This is the calibre of the humour here.
A film like this should be a fun experience. It should capture the experience of 80s-tinged nostalgia of arcade gaming, but Pixels just simply doesn’t. It’s a narrative of a loser man-child getting to save the world and to be perfectly honest, the episode of Futurama did it a lot better and a lot funnier in a lot less time. Watch that, or Wreck-It Ralph, or the documentary King of Kong. Or better yet, just watch the original short film.