As someone who got really good at Galaga in the eighties – and had found Adam Sandler virtually intolerable in everything he did after Funny People – I was pleasantly surprised by how often I laughed at Pixels.
Even the premise – aliens misinterpret a message of simple greetings that included samples of arcade games as a declaration of war and sent real-life versions to conquer/destroy the Earth – had the cool feel of a vintage video game. Also, it was based on a terrific short film you can check out on YouTube.
Pixels opens in 1982 with a couple of nerds – Brenner (Anthony Ippolito), Kevin Cooper (Jared Riley) and Ludlow (Jacob Shinder) – bonding over video games and Brenner securing a birth at the first Arcade World Championship, where he narrowly loses in the final (Donkey Kong) to Eddie Plant (Andrew Bambridge), who has given himself the nickname Fire Blaster.
Cut to the present and we find Brenner (Adam Sandler) waxing nostalgic about the old days with Cooper (Kevin James) – whom we learn is the President of the United States. When they’re done, Brenner heads out and we learn he’s working for a Geek Squad-type company, installing electronics.
On this occasion, setting up a 60” TV for Violet (Michelle Monaghan) and her son, Matty (Matt Lintz). When he’s done, he searches out Violet to have her sign off on the job and finds her drinking and crying in her walk-in closet. After misinterpreting the moment they have for something else entirely – and getting a call from his old pal Cooper (Kevin James) he leaves.
Violet has also gotten a call and is headed to work and both she and Brenner are headed to the White House – where they learn that Galaga has just destroyed an Air Force base in Guam.
Violet turns out to be Lieutenant-Colonel Violet Van Patten and while she gloats about being admitted to the Situation Room, Brenner is ushered into the Oval Office – where President Cooper shows him film of the attack.
After Cooper’s best advisors fail to prevent an attack on the Taj Mahal, Cooper brings in Brenner, Ludlow (Josh Gad) and Plant (Peter Dinklage) – after making some concessions to 4-time convict Plant that involve taxes and a small island.
Time is of the essence because the aliens are playing a best-of-five series and Earth is down two-zip.
From there, the three take on the best the aliens have – Centipede and Pac Man – before the aliens discover someone has cheated and launch an all-out attack on New York City.
Adapted for movies by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, and directed by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter 1 & 2, Mrs. Doubtfire), Pixels is a fast-paced sci-fi action-adventure that moves well and doesn’t require a lot of thought to enjoy. It’s kind of a perfect summer popcorn movies.
As mentioned above, Adam Sandler hasn’t been this good since Funny People – maybe because he’s not hiding behind a funny voice or using a movie shoot as a vacation. Sure, it’s not Funny People or even Punch Drunk Love, but Sandler shows more commitment to Brenner than to any live-action role he’s had since 2009. It’s nice to know that, when required by an actual character, he can still pull off a real performance.
James is also better than he’s been in a while as a president who makes George Bush look like a model of competency. His everyman as president performance is confident and his timing is still fine.
Gad gets to be the really over-the-top character as Ludlow has grown into a full-blown conspiracy nut with a confused sense of sexuality – unless his favorite video game character, Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson), is involved. He also gets to exercise his pipes in one of the movie’s genuinely superfluous sequences, but he pulls it off beautifully.
Dinklage’s Eddie is a punk, an unlikable jerk who doesn’t quite deserve his game-playing rep but has to face up to it when it really counts. His character’s need for redemption is obvious and predictable but he makes us believe because he’s just that good.
Monaghan impresses, as usual, because she’s the real link to the film’s humanity – she’s a working single mom whose job just happens to be running R&D for the Armed Forces. She makes us believe that Violet’s growing affection for Brenner could happen, while remaining a force in her own right.
Brian Cox gets to play apoplectic Admiral Porter – the one member of the president’s security council to gets to voice his exceeding disdain for the gamers; Sean Bean delights in an extended cameo as a hardass SAS officer who loses his (stuff) when the Centipede attack takes place in London, and Matt Frewer gets to relive the glory days of Max Headroom in a perfectly timed cameo.
There’s a lot going on in Pixels, though not much of it means anything. It’s essentially a good guys vs. bad guys summer popcorn flick – fun while it’s on the screen; forgotten, except for its visual inventiveness, five minutes after you leave the theater.
And speaking of inventiveness, the 3D during the alien attacks is really good and the 8-bit video game simulation that constitutes the first half of the closing credits roll is spot on.
If you’re looking for a spot of fun and nothing more, then Pixels is what you’re looking for.
Final Grade: B
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures