Having a hobby that the world has villainized for over three decades, I can’t help but react to the slightest bit of recognition thrown at video games. Fortunately, Hollywood has given us exactly that: the slightest bit…that recognizes thirty-year-old games..with an Adam Sandler movie. This validation couldn’t get any smaller if they had hired a team of nuclear physicists to assemble it by smashing protons together in a particle accelerator. Actually, I kid, but having grown up in the nineties, I have a confession to make, which they tell me is the first step toward recovery; I actually like Adam Sandler. Billy Madison? Hilarious. Happy Gilmore? You couldn’t make a better sports movie if you recast the Mighty Ducks with the Playboy Bunnies. And honestly, after Wreck-it-Ralph decided fans of classic video games would love to watch the inbred love-child of Mario Kart and Candyland, I actually appreciated a movie that got the classics right.
The film follows an over-mature man child–no, not like Big Daddy. He’s a character who acts like a child–no, not like Billy Madison. He’s actually an unlikely prodigy–but not like Happy Gilmore. He’s kind of socially awkward–no, not like Little Nicky or Anger Management–and tries to win over a girl who is unbelievably hot–but not like 50 First Dates–and…you know what? Why don’t I just start over.
Pixels follows four friends–Happy Gilmore, Paul Blart Mall Cop, Tyrion Lannister, and the snowman from Frozen–who won their fifteen minutes of fame by the age of twelve setting record high scores for Galaga, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and other silver-screen era arcade games. Beldar Conehead took the footage from the competition and blasted it into space, whereupon aliens mistook it for a declaration of war, and they emulate the forms of the games they see in order to invade. Apparently nothing makes an invasion strategy look stronger than footage of adolescent boys systematically dismantling it with apparent ease. Fast forward thirty years, and United States President Blart Mall Cop has to pull the country together to stave off this invasion. Naturally he turns to his long time friend, who now installs home theatre systems in the D.C. area. Because the skills required to hit buttons while standing in front of an arcade cabinet easily translate to heavy weapons proficiency in a first-person, physical environment. In the end, Sandler hooks up with the insanely hot Lieutenant Colonel, which is not a spoiler for an Adam Sandler movie, and Olaf the Snowman fucks Q-Bert, which I unfortunately did not exaggerate in any way.
Generally, any audience will accept coincidence more readily at the beginning of a story, but Pixels asks us to take quite a bit on faith. When we see the president as a self-absorbed bastard with a flair for indulgence in sex, drugs, and partying, we get that. In fact, he surprisingly bridges the ideological differences between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But suggesting that he comes from a background that enables him to know any blue collar workers, let alone still associate with them, seems a bit of a stretch. And the fact that both of them had a personal hand in starting the invasion that they both personally help repel…well, a religion based on the sixty-five-year-old writings of a washed up sci-fi author who asks celebrities for exorbitant subscription fees starts sounding pretty reasonable by comparison. Then we have to follow that the insanely hot, Sandlerishly milfish (she has to have a kid because Sandler needs an early-adolescent boy in all his films to connect with on an intellectual level) Lieutenant Colonel just so happened to call President Mall Cop’s drinking buddy for her son’s PS4 installation, that people exist who both need help with that and who provide professional services for that, that her husband left her based on physical appearance, and that she gave birth to a son–presumably at the age of twelve, based on how old she looks–without any noticeable change in her figure.
Pixels creates a world about as realistic as an M.C. Escher drawing, but with an elegance more on par with a self-shot sex tape after knocking the camera off the nightstand. Sandler plays the same character as always: that kid who scored major cool points in middle school because he had older brothers who taught him dirty words and let him take their Playboys, and then graduated to high school and couldn’t understand why his eat-anything-on-a-dare routine didn’t impress people anymore. The dialogue has all the wit and humor of that thing your buddy said while drunk and you later posted to Facebook. But I don’t want to give the impression that the film is worthless.
First off, Peter Dinklage has been hailed by prophecy as the anti-Sandler, he who will be born unto the world every thousand years to blight other actors with the realization that acting means completely playing pretend, not just being a slightly different version of yourself in every movie. Dinklage created his character from the ground up, and it comes off as fully enjoyable to the point where you wish he had a bigger part…uh…no pun intended. It’s good to see him get roles based on his talent, rather than every other dwarf actor who shows up when a director needs a short character, and then gets stuffed back into a closet or a duffle bag, or an overhead compartment on a cessna.
Second, this movie has figured out something–likely 100% accidentally–that no other video game movie to date seems to have realized: gameplay. Barring well-written stories in games like Final Fantasy or Silent Hill, people watch these movies because they like the way the game plays. Pixels doesn’t try to give an origin story to Pac Man, a tragic plot arc to Centipede, or some crazy MacGuffin to explain why the tetrominoes have such a beef against horizontal lines. None of that shit! Donkey Kong chucks a barrel at Sandler’s head? Sandler climbs up the scaffolding to kick his monkey ass! Big-ass centipede dropping out of the sky? Sandler grabs a gun and shoots for the head. Tetrominoes filling up the streets, making the buildings disappear? Sandler…well he doesn’t really do anything about that, but the point is that’s what happens in the game.
The film has details. Lots of details. Scenes where fans of arcade classics can scan the crowd and recognize the bloke riding an ostrich, the frog hopping in front of cars, or the bipedal fried egg running around as though it would actually be menacing in real life. And these aren’t any tongue-in-cheek references either. No ha-ha-they-call-him-Ralph-but-that-game-looks-like-Donkey-Kong attempts at satire. These are actually the games we played thirty years ago, come back to seek revenge for when we ran out of quarters to feed them. You could watch this half a dozen times and probably catch new details on each viewing.
If, you know, it wasn’t a generic disposable comedy, filmed to view once and then discard like a used condom: an awesome idea the first time, but after using it you don’t really want people to see it sitting on your shelf. Much like the condom, if you get the opportunity, I’d say go for it; it’ll be fun. I did say earlier that I like Adam Sandler (just not in that way), despite the common criticisms…some of which I’ve conveyed here, myself…and the movie has its moments. However, if you have trouble with staying power, good news; it turns out this film was based on a 2010 short film of the same name, and–much like your experiences with the condom–it’s over after two and a half minutes.