In animated 80s video game form, the entire plot of Pixels plays out over the end credits. It serves as both handy summary and blunt demonstration that the previous two hours were largely redundant. This is high-concept cinema that fumbles the central comic idea straight off the line, apparently out of sheer laziness. It’s not that the jokes are bad; they’re mostly non-existent, along with any attempt to construct a dramatic narrative.
So what is this idea that goes to waste with a thoroughness that would be almost impressive if the end result wasn’t so maddeningly poor? Imagine a world where aliens stumble across a NASA recording from a 1982 arcade games competition and mistake it for a challenge. Then imagine they turn up in the shape of classic arcade game characters, challenging humanity to engage them in mass scale re-runs of those blocky gaming landmarks. If you expect more detail, there isn’t any, but it’s a premise quirky enough to present comic opportunity.
The great leap of the imagination, one I suspect will prove nigh on impossible to make, comes next. In this world, imagine Adam Sandler is humanity’s saviour (and a tech installation guy), and Kevin James is the US President. A giant alien Pac-Man munching up the streets of New York is more likely. And yet that’s exactly what’s on offer. Sandler’s Sam Brenner, a former video game champion, must head up a team including Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a stereotypical nerd channelling Weird Science and Norman Bates, Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), an unbearably obnoxious gaming champion, and Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), the token female there to be ogled, saved, and ultimately paired off with Sandler.
At least Pixels provides an early warning as to what’s coming next. The writing’s already on the wall when the name Chris Columbus, a director who struck big early on with effective broad based comedy, before settling into a run of films lacking creativity, and often quality, flashes up on screen. From there, an uninspired 80’s send-up segues into present day unpleasantness as Sam and President Cooper (James) rate actresses in a bar, before Sandler takes his slightly more subdued buffoon over to gawk at Monaghan. With pleasantries out the way, all that remains is a whole lot of aimless exposition setting up a number of battles that conclude in the destruction of earth if humanity loses three of them.
Some fun is had with blown-up arcade games. A race to track down Pac-Man across the streets of New York, and a Donkey Kong showdown offer enough knowing weirdness to entertain. The problem comes between the fights. There’s no flow as scenes jump all over the place, seeking, and failing to find laughs from gruff military commanders, perplexed marines, and even Serena Williams.
The incompetence of the peripheral jokes is matched by the woeful humour radiating from three of the five leads. Dinklage is stuck with a one-note irritant and James is the same bumbling idiot he plays normally, except he’s also apparently stumbled into the position of leader of the free world. Sandler at least steps back from his more excruciating recent outings, but he can’t find the right key, overbalancing a number of scenes before disappearing into others. Only Gad manages a few laughs, nailing creepy lines and sudden switches of aggression. Poor Monaghan, ostensibly one of the core players, is relegated to the usual pretty woman role, kept around mainly to fall in love with Sandler, and get into scrapes that require acts of heroism from nearby men.
At least Pixels is never dull. Fragmented jumps and the occasional flash of inspiration stop it from sinking into a state of torpor. Don’t take that for a badge of quality either though. When the aliens threaten to destroy the planet should Sam and co lose their final battle, I couldn’t help but side with the extra-terrestrial interlopers.