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'Pixels' Can't Survive It's Hackneyed Script

Other elements of the movie almost work. The screenplay definitely doesn't.


Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monogham
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Year: 2015
UK Release Date: 2015-07-24
US Release Date: 2015-07-24

The problem with Pixels is not Adam Sandler. Sure, a much more magnetic and engaging actor could have been cast, someone without the massive baggage that comes with his Happy Madison branding, but he's quasi-believable as the ex-arcade game geek asked to defend the world from an unusual alien attack. Put another way, he's just as viable as Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad, also hired to play men who once dominated the pre-Playstation days of coin-operated fun.

Director Chris Columbus is also not the issue. He's a throwback, a former FoS (Friend of Spielberg) who lost his directorial way somewhere around Rent. Before that, he was a creator of dependable commercial fare, and had scripted at least three classic '80s titles (Gremlins, Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes).

There are signs of life all throughout the overlong running time, proof that with the proper script, Pixels could have been a player. Instead, an awful adaptation of a truly special short film is the reason this sad summer entertainment fails. It's proof that you can't give a genius idea to a couple of idiots and assume they will see the same things in it that you do.

Tim Herlihy has been part of the Sandler team since the days when fans actually looked forward to his next film, while Timothy Dowling has been involved in such diverse works as George Lucas in Love, Role Models, and This Means War. Still, the duo doesn't understand the basic appeal of this material, and undermines it with jokes that further damage what the rest of the movie it trying to do.

This whole thing is based on a brilliant little short film by Patrick Jean which envisioned a modern metropolis overrun by '80s 8-bit arcade characters. No real narrative structure or arc, just a series of amazing visual set-pieces that promised, if expanded, something incredible. What the eventual full length Pixels provides, however, is stupidity. Illogical character skills crash into narrative contrivance, misogyny reigns, coincidence substitutes for any kind of drama, and personalities are pitched at levels slightly less than ludicrous, all adding up to something that should be amazing, but ends up borderline awful.

This is not the worst movie that Sandler and crew have made. There are too many contenders for that title to include Pixels among their number. Still, this will go down as yet another example of the actor overreaching, or putting himself and his mindset into places it does not belong. When you hear the premise, when you understand the cinematic dynamic at play, the result is a major letdown. GC video game characters attacking the world? Intriguing. How Pixels handles it? Hackneyed and uninvolved.

The story starts off in the Reagan era, focusing on Sandler's character as a young boy. Taking part in an arcade game competition, young Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito, later Sandler) faces off against Eddie Plant (Dinklage) with the results being beamed into space as part of a cultural reach out to other galaxies. Fast forward 30 years and aliens come to Earth, impersonating those famous video game characters -- Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Centipede, Pac-Man -- thinking that's how we do battle.

President Will Cooper (Kevin James), who also happens to be Sam's best friend from back when, calls on his buddy to help stop the attack. He is joined by Eddie, a conspiracy theorist named Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad) and their military liaison, Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten (Michelle Monagham) and using technology similar to that of the old games, they hope to defeat the extraterrestrials before they can pixelate the entire planet.

As high concepts go, Pixels is more Cheech and Chong than Last Action Hero. It's a clever conceit with an air hose stuck up its hind quarters. Columbus does what he can when he can, helping turn NYC into a Pac-Man grid and other parts of the world into equally effective arcade scenarios, but that's all he can do. The rest is up to the cast, and they are saddled with jokes so lame and characterizations so staid that you'd swear it was the '50s, not the start of a new millennium.

Everyone here is horrible, except for Dinklage, who always deserves better. He's trying. The rest of the actors are counting the zeroes on the end of their check. A good comparison to what this experience is like is imagining Jurassic World under the Happy Madison brand. On the one side is a potential eye candy blockbuster with over the top ideas and visuals to match. On the other is a slacker mentality that believes a digital figure taking a pee is funny (right, Qbert?).

If you want two examples of this idea done much, much better, take a gander at the Futurama episode "Anthology of Interest II", or Disney's masterpiece Wreck-It Ralph. Both understood arcade allure a lot better than this piece of junk. Those filmmakers understood the spectacle. Pixels has a hard time working it in.

If the rest of the world vindicates Sandler and gives him a box office hit based on eye candy alone, such a commercial justification is understandable. But for anyone who thought the Stud Boy would come out of his creative coma and deliver on a grander scale, the answer is obvious. Pixels is pathetic. It should have been so much better, but it can't overcome its awful script.


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