Just to save everyone time, let’s get this out of the way right away: Pixels is one of the worst movies of the year. It is unpleasant, unfunny, slow, and sometimes doesn’t even look that good (maybe a “retro” movie shouldn’t be in 3D). It panders to the typical Sandler audiences of 35-50-year-old straight, white men who love bro-humor and almost aggressively shuts out anyone else. This movie is bad. This is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad movie that could make a lot of money, which would make me sad! So take this as a public service. If you want to vote with your dollars (the only way audiences can vote on blockbusters now), do not pay to see this movie. Vote no on Adam Sandler and movies like this.
Alright, rant over, time to talk about this in terms of a review (PS, I did not pay for this movie, and I’m still annoyed to have wasted my time). And what a time. The first thing I said after I got out of this film was, “That movie felt long.” And yet, it technically isn’t all that long. It isn’t even 2 hours! But it felt long—and boring. Maybe because barely anything happens for the first half of the film to any of the main characters we’re supposed to care about. We have an incredibly long flashback to the wonderful world of arcades, and then see that our arcade hero became an electronics installer, whose best friend (who can only play claw) became the President. Yeah, in this world, Kevin James is our President! I was as shocked as you.
Adam Sandler plays the “nerd” installer, who we are told—over and over again—is a loser. OK, he deffinitely seems like a loser because he won’t brush his teeth and considers being second best at arcade games his great downfall (at 12), but what are these outside factors that make him a loser according to the movie? Are all repairmen of electronics and computers losers in this world? Apparently. Also, we’re told by characters “you could have been something” and “you could have made something, not just play,” but I’m not sure of that. We see no abilities to code or think scientifically from Sandler’s character.
And the person saying this is the one person who seems capable of doing all this herself. Michelle Monaghan’s Violet is a tech-savy, high-level military officer. She’s also a trainwreck who drinks in the closet because her husband left her for a hotter, perfect younger woman; and just in case you have no short term memory, they make it impossible to forget that first and foremost, we should like her and want her to end up with Sandler because she’s a single mom of an unbearably precocious child, whom she brings to work at the Pentagon during an alien war (she’d be better off sending that kid to Jurassic World for the weekend). Anyone see Monaghan in last year’s military drama Fort Bliss? This is not that character, nor is this even on the same level of that performance. At times, Monaghan seems completely lost in this mess; at times she doesn’t even seem aware of who she’s talking to.
To be honest, I wouldn’t call any of these performances “good.” Peter Dinklage definitely comes out the best for actually making some choices and committing. But he has no real character to latch onto, and Dinklage really doesn’t need to put up with this kind of garbage. This is the movie he did during hiatus from Game of Thrones?
Most of the other performances are just bad. Sandler and James just sleepwalk through their roles and don’t even seem to be enjoying the action-adventure premise or ’80s nostalgia. Josh Gad (14 years younger than Sandler, but is supposed to be maybe only 5 years younger), interprets humor as shouting, and it is genuinely unpleasant when he’s on screen, especially when he’s super creepy. This movie also has a lot of cameos, some of which just bother me for wasting talented people’s time. Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean, Brian Cox, and Dan Aykroyd show up but never get laughs.
But, I’m fairly sure I know why Dan Aykroyd decided to appear in this movie: to sell his Crystal Head Vodka, which is very well placed in a drinking scene. And this movie has so much product placement and licensing, I almost wanted to use the vodka to play a drinking game just to pass the time. Products (like other, modern games and cars) are presented like they’re in a show room. But the arcade games are even worse, because the script is so bad, the only “humor” is simply in a general sense of recognition. Even The Wizard made gaming look more fun than this movie. I don’t get the sense that anyone involved in this movie loves games or could even have a conversation about their appeal. And yet, they are trying to force nostalgia from the audience for these games by calling out modern games.
It strikes me as incredibly weird that the most common complaint about “video games” is the fact that they’re becoming increasingly more violent and lifelike. We have war games that are used in military training and driving games that are shown to make people more aggressive drivers. But the aliens in this movie think games from the ’80s are too violent, so what is the commentary in this movie for audiences?
There doesn’t seem to be one.
The most common argument for this is “it’s just a fun ’80s movie.” But even if they only want audiences to watch the movie and take pleasure in the visuals, there aren’t that many eye-popping moments. With the exception of one driving sequence that’s staged well and the look of the games in the daylight in the final sequence, this movie doesn’t look nearly as good as the 2-minute short it’s based on. Also, they don’t make the first two attacks look like real-life video games of Space Invaders or Galaga, so what fun is that?
And intentional or not, there are concealed comments that make this film a hard watch when you can’t turn off your brain. For example, as is typical with most Sandler movies, “gay panic” is pretty common in this film with the man-child characters, AKA our heroes. These guys want chicks, and that fact is made a little too clear. Besides Monaghan and Sandler (no chemistry by the way) and James and Krakowski as the President and First Lady, Dinklage and Gad’s sexuality is pretty gross for what is clearly being marketed at children. Dinklage, in prison, wants to blackmail the US government into providing him with a forced 3-some with two women who don’t fit traditional beauty standards (sadly, that got the biggest laugh in the theater I was in).
And Gad has an unsettling obsession with Dojo Quest’s Lady Lisa. Is Gad reprimanded or criticized for having these views of women, or does he evolve into seeing women as people rather than fantasies? No. Do we hear Monaghan say, “I guess we get to keep the trophies,” only to see a beautiful woman appear as said trophy? Yeah, we do! None of the gamers are women (the only time Monaghan gets to be active is when motivated to save her son), and there are no gamers of color. Denis Akiyama plays the inventor of Pac-Man, but is bitten by his creation extremely early in the fight sequence (I still don’t know the logic of Pac-Man being a monster and ghosts being cars), and the two victims of the earlier attacks were also the only two characters of color, and no one in this movie seems to care that two people were killed and the Taj Mahal destroyed. It’s played like a joke!
This movie is getting terrible reviews and a lot of anger, which I completely understand. This is one of the very few “original” blockbuster films this year, and it feels lazier than any of the sequels we’ve seen. It’s cynical, mean-spirited, and joyless, and all the ’80s nostalgia it tells us it wants to bring back to audiences is completely lacking. I sense there’s a frustration growing with Adam Sander not just because his movies aren’t good but still make money, but because he’s become such an apathetic comic with no interest in putting out quality material. At under $100M, this movie is relatively cheap, so it’s almost certain to not be a financial failure, which means Sandler will keep getting to make his movies and failing to evolve as a filmmaker or comedian, because people just keep seeing them.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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