It may not look like it, but right from the beginning you'll be able to tell this is an Adam Sandler movie. Like all of his usual the-gang's-all-here comedies, Pixels begins in flashback and spends the rest of the movie resolving the Sandler character's childhood grumpies. It's lazy. And, since it cost $110 million to make, it's one of Sandler's all-time worst, a mind-boggling feat considering the competition.
Director Chris Columbus, who wrote The Goonies and directed Home Alone a lifetime ago, has seemingly lost it. He has no sense for what's funny, otherwise he would've stayed a galaxy away from this bucktoothed open mic night of a movie. We know Sandler doesn't care. His IMDb page can attest to that. But we hope for the best with filmmakers like Columbus, co-stars like Peter Dinklage and, to a cavernously lesser degree, Josh Gad.
Well, abandon all hope. The opening flashback is obnoxious: Sandler's character Brenner robs a lemonade stand with his fat friend for arcade quarters. And things don't improve much. The characters are supposed to be huge personalities, but none of them are likable.
Brenner is a natural gamer, a "Wizard" if you will, but he loses the 1982 Arcade Championships to a cocky little guy named Fireblaster, who looks like he's gonna be funny, but then he speaks: "It's totally tubular!" Ugh. That line is actually repeated. As is a joke involving a girl named "Sinnamon" with a "S." Get it? Girls are stupid. But good as sex objects. Fireblaster has two mute honeys following him around. And Ashley Benson appears, also mute, as a fantasy game character. But the joke's on her. She has to kiss sweaty Josh Gad.
Fast forward 33 years and Brenner (Sandler) is now an orange-clad Geek Squad guy setting up home theaters for rich people. The arcade thing never panned out. His new client, Violet (Michelle Monaghan), is broken up over her cheating husband so she cries on the floor of her walk-in closet with a bottle of wine. Brenner, like any Geek Squad guy would do, joins her. She rebuffs his advances, but the love interest plotline is forged. Ten minutes later, they're both in the Situation Room at The White House with the President. Wait, what?
Turns out Violet is a top military adviser and Brenner, well, he's the President's best friend from childhood. Remember the fatso who stole the lemonade money? He's the President of the United States now, and he's given the polar opposite of gravitas by Kevin James. So this is how Adam Sandler saves the world. Aliens attack Earth with classic arcade game characters, gleaned from a 1980s time capsule sent harmlessly into space years earlier, and the President's bestest buddy happens to be an expert old school gamer.
As this galactically stupid set up unfolds, Pixels unveils "real-life" versions of video games one after another. Futurama did an episode like this in 2003. And the story structure mimics Ghostbusters with elements from Armageddon thrown in. First, Galaga attacks, then Centipede, then Arkanoid, and so on. In response, the President turns to Brenner, his other childhood gaming buddy Ludlow (Gad), and the coup de grace: Fireblaster (Dinklage), now an adult, but still little. Fireblaster, AKA Eddie, has to be sprung from jail, and he won't fight aliens unless a righteous demand is made: He wants to be sandwich meat between Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. Dinklage has this fake rapper accent that doesn't play. It's unnerving how annoying he is here. Gad isn't much better, but he earns his paycheck at least.
The humans create a light cannon that destroys the pixelated monsters a la Ghostbusters so it's easy for these idiots to play heroes. But what about all the countless other idiots out there? Where's the cast of King of Kong? Its director, Seth Gordon, even produced Pixels! I wanted Billy Mitchell in this movie in the worst way. But Pixels is much too lazy to insert knowing references. Everything is spoonfed like nursery lunchtime. And the story never makes any sense. Why wouldn't the President have an army of arcade gamers at the ready, with weaponized helicopters and jet packs? Where'd the $110 million go? To Kevin James?
At the beginning of the movie, President Coop insults Brenner by calling him a "blacksmith" because he's adept at something obsolete. But there are plenty of blacksmiths out there today, and plenty more professional gamers. Gaming has only grown as an industry since 1982. That lazy "joke" is a microcosm of the attention to detail put into Pixels' script, by Tim Dowling and Tim Herlihy, Sandler's frequent collaborator and old SNL buddy. After the apocalyptic battles against invading aliens are won in this movie, the characters all go to a bar like they just won a softball game. It's a thoughtless movie. The script is based on Patrick Jean's clever 2010 short film. It's worth noting the very best parts of Pixels are taken directly from the short (the Tetris pieces bringing down skyscrapers and Arkanoid taking out the Taj Mahal). But the source material is bastardized here in the most lazy, get-this-thing-over-with way. The Sandlerian way.