DIR: Chris Columbus • WRI: Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling • PRO: Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Allen Covert, Adam Sandler • DOP: Amir Mokri • ED: Peck Prior, Hughes Winborne • DES: Peter Wenham • MUS: Henry Jackman • CAST: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan
Pixels is one of the worst films I’ve had the displeasure of watching, and an immediate contender for the worst feature film of 2015. Badly written, badly acted, and so disgustingly misogynistic I’m amazed anyone approved this script for shooting.
Basically, what happened here is that Sandler and his goon squad from Happy Madison took a brilliant concept for a film, and messed up. Terribly.
So, the plot of this train-wreck is that in 1982, some video-game footage, taken from an arcade competition, where we see our lead characters as children, was sent in a probe to outer space, in the hope that aliens would find it and realise what lovely beings the human race are. And indeed, aliens did find it, and they somehow mistook it for a declaration of war, and decided to launch a full-scale offensive against Earth, the aliens presumably having nothing better to do. Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Aliens find this thing that’s been randomly floating through space for the last 30 years, which would indicate that it’s gotten pretty far away from Earth at this point, somehow mistake it for a declaration of war, and instead of going back home to get their defences ready for the invasion that they think is oncoming, instead they immediately fly over to Earth and launch an attack without even trying to contact earth’s leaders about the transmission? Maybe asking about it, making sure it was a declaration of war before killing millions? For an alien society which the film at a later point establishes as peace-loving, they seemed very quick to launch an offensive against the planet. Anyway, as you may have seen in the trailers, instead of the traditional alien Warcraft flying around destroying things, the aliens instead use creatures modelled from the data they got from the probe, i.e. they send down giant pixelated versions of Pacman, etc. to kill us.
They decide to challenge humanity to a video-game off, i.e. giant rounds of one videogame or another get played, the winner of each round gets one point, if humanity get more points, the aliens leave peacefully and stop trying to destroy us. This causes U.S. President Cooper, played by Kevin James, (no really) to call upon the arcade champions of 1982, the year the probe was sent up, to play for the Earth, as he considers them the Earth’s best hope, and this begins another man-child hero’s journey similar to Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison.
We’re then introduced to the gamer characters, and of course they’re the stereotypical weirdo gamers who have of course done nothing with their lives, because it’s of course inconceivable to think that any video-game fans could possibly have normal lives… Oh wait, yes it is, it’s just that writing a character like that would be original, and originality is too much to ask of a film like Pixels. To be honest, I would have understood the point of maybe one of them being a loser still infatuated with gaming, while the others have moved on with their respective lives, perhaps there could have been a character arc about the loser learning about the dangers of all-consuming nostalgia, the need for variation in our hobbies, and the need to grow up and do something constructive as well as have hobbies?
As the trailers have been boasting, this film doesn’t just feature James and Sandler, it also has Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad, and both are… absolutely terrible. Dinklage, for some reason, spends the entire film doing a voice which I think was meant to indicate that he was from the hood, and although he did admittedly make me laugh once, the one and only time I laughed during the run-time of this supposed comedy, Josh Gad messed up completely. Not only does every one of his jokes fall flat on its face with an audible thud, he seems to confuse comedy with screeching like a prepubescent child whose balls are still in his neck trying to match the screeches of a Dragon-ball Z character as they power up for 10 hours. And of course, it goes without saying that tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum do their usual things: Sandler comes out with unfunny one-liners while James does the usual “clumsy funny fat guy” routine he’s been doing since King of Queens.
I’ve heard a few people call this film Scott Pilgrim for complete douches, and I agree. You see, whereas Scott Pilgrim used the video-game rules in real life thing as a way to tell an interesting story that used gaming iconography to make thoughtful commentary on love and the human condition, Pixels uses video-game iconography to show us a video-game character, say “oh look, I recognise that and for some reason that now qualifies as a joke! Oh look its frogger! Give us money to remind you frogger existed!”
There’s another sub-plot involving Gad’s creepy caricature of the stereotypical gaming nerd being madly in love with a Buffy the vampire-slayer-esque action chick, (who by the way wears an outfit that looks like it was designed by a hormonal teenage boy with scissors for hands, and who never speaks) and when he finally meets her, she can for some reason go non-pixelated even though all the other aliens look like they were beamed straight off an NES. .
There’s also the problem of this film having no idea who its audience is. Given all the retro-gaming references, you’d assume it was meant as a nostalgia trip for all the members of Generation X that would have grown up in the arcades playing these games, but since anyone who actually played these games in the arcades would be 30-40 by now, why is the humour so blatantly dumbed down and made for 6-year-old children? Every single one of the unfunny jokes in this film is like something a six-year-old might laugh at. I get that they want to make it kid-friendly so parents will spend money on it for their children, there is business sense there, but could they not have had a few innuendos, some Dreamworks-esque adult joke that kids won’t understand?
You know what hurts the most about this film? The fact that it could have been good. Let’s go back to the beginning of the film, the arcade championship. I actually did enjoy the first few scenes of this film, and the child actors they got to play the kid versions of Sandler, James, Dinklage and Gad were surprisingly good, and this film is directed by Chris Columbus, director of the first two Home Alone movies, the first two Harry Potter movies, and the classic Mrs. Doubtfire, proving that he knows how to get good performances out of child actors, a skill not every director has. What if, instead of skipping ahead 30 years, the alien invasion had happened back in 1982, and we had spent the entire film with the children? We still could have had the whole retro-game thing, and if it had been set back then, it would have been even more of a nostalgia trip for the Gen Xers who grew up with these games. It could have been The Lost Boys with aliens. It could have worked. If they’d tightened up the script a little bit and gotten rid of the misogyny, it could have been good!
In the interest of objectivity, I feel I should mention the fact that the CGI is genuinely excellent, and looks amazing! It’s just too bad everything else about this film falls flat.
Alright, I’ve been dancing around this issue long enough, I think it’s time to address the giant, tuberculotic elephant in the room: the rampant sexism and complete disregard for all female characters. Firstly, Adam Sandler and Michelle Monaghan have about as much chemistry as Hayden Christianson and Natalie Portman had in the Star Wars prequels, and Sandler comes across as pretty eerie a lot of the time, especially when he first meets Monaghan. Honestly, if you edited “Creep” by Radiohead over the scene where Sandler and Monaghan first meet, it would be quite fitting. Then there’s the larger issue, i.e. the fact that there are a total of five female characters in this entire film. Two have no dialogue, and one of those two spends all her screen-time walking around in a Xena: Warrior Princess-esque fetish outfit, two are celebrity cameos, four of them are princess peach-esque trophies for the male characters, and only two of them have any relevance to the over-arching alien invasion plot.
In the end, this movie is easily the worst thing to happen to gaming since Jack Thompson. The acting’s sub-par across the board, the script is terrible, none of the jokes are funny, it’s openly misogynistic, and Columbus finally made a film worse than Nine Months. Well done.